Base and Superstructure
General characteristics of mechanical materialism and its consequences. Analysis of base and superstructure, under capitalism, their relationship to ideology. Features of the division operation and the exploited classes. The essence of class struggle.
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Base and Superstructure
Mechanical materialism and its aftermath
The answers given to these questions lead to very different views about how society develops.
At the one extreme, there is the view that the base is the forces of production, that they inevitably advance, and that this in turn leads to changes in society.
Political and ideological struggle is then seen as playing no real role. Human beings are products of their circumstances, and history proceeds completely independently of their will. The outcome of wars, revolutions, philosophical arguments or what-not is always determined in advance. It would have made not one iota of difference to history if Robespierre had walked under a carriage in 1788 or if the sealed train had crashed in April 1917.
This view of Marxism is based upon a certain reading of Marx himself, in particular upon a powerful polemical passage in The Poverty of Philosophy:
`In acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning a living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill society with an industrial capitalist.' Kàrl Màrx ànd Frådår³ck Ångåls, Cîllåctåd Wîrks, Prîgråss Publ³shårs, Mîscîw, 1975, Vîl. 6, p. 166.
It is in the years after Marx's death that such a mechanical, determinist view of history comes to be regarded as `Marxist' orthodoxy. It was during this period that Marxism came to hegemonise the German workers' movement, and through it the Second International. But it was Marxism as seen through the eyes of Karl Kautsky, the `Pope of Marxism'.
For Kautsky, historical development had inevitably produced each mode of production in turn - antiquity, feudalism, capitalism - and would eventually lead to socialism. There was an `inevitable…adaptation of forms of appropriation to forms of production'. Kàrl Kàutsky, Thå Åcînîm³c Dîctr³nås îf Kàrl Màrx, Lîndîn, 1925, p. 365. Revolutionary movements could not alter this pattern of development. Thus the Hussites of the 15th century and the revolutionary Anabaptists of the 16th century had been able to fight courageously and to present the vision of a new society; but, for Kautsky, they could not alter the inevitable development of history:
`The direction of social development does not depend on the use of peaceful methods or violent struggles. It is determined by the progress and needs of the methods of production. If the outcome of violent revolutionary struggles does not correspond to the intentions of the revolutionary combatants, this only signifies that these intentions stand in opposition to the development of the needs of production.
Violent revolutionary struggles can never determine the direction of social development, they can only in certain circumstances accelerate their pace…' Kàrl Kàutsky, Vîrlaufår dår nåurån Sîz³àl³smus, Årstår Bànd:Kîmmun³st³schå Båwågungån ³n M³ttålàltår, Bårl³n, 1923, p. 365. Àn Ångl³sh trànslàt³în îf pàrt îf th³s wîrk wàs prîducåd ³n thå 1890s, but ³s v³rtuàlly unîbtà³nàblå tîdày. Th³s ³s unfîrtunàtå, s³ncå thå wåàknåss ³n Kàutsky's måthîd d³d nît pråvånt h³m prîduc³ng ³ntåråst³ng h³stîr³càl stud³ås.
The task of revolutionary socialists under modem capitalism was not to try to cut short the historical process, but simply to reflect its development by carefully building up socialist organisation until capitalism was ready to turn into socialism. But, at the same time, counter-revolutionaries could not stop the onward march of the forces of production and, therefore, of historical evolution. Kautsky insisted that `regression' from more advanced to more backward forces of production never occurred. Kàrl Kàutsky, Åth³cs ànd thå Màtår³àl³st³c Cîncåpt³în îf H³stîry, Lîndîn, 1906, p. 81. `Economic development', said his most influential work, his introduction to the German Social Democratic Party's Erfurt Programme, `will lead inevitably to the… conquest of the government in the interests of the [working] class'. L³kå mîst îthår måchàn³càl màtår³àl³sts, Kàutsky cîuld nît st³ck r³g³dly tî h³s îwn måthîd. Àt pî³nts hå dîås suggåst thàt humàn àct³v³ty hàs àn ³mpîrtànt rîlå tî plày, às whån hå suggåsts ³n h³s ³ntrîduct³în tî thå Årfurt Prîgràmmå thàt unlåss `sîc³åty shàkås îff thå burdån' îf `thå syståm îf pr³vàtå îwnårsh³p îf thå måàns îf prîduct³în' ³n thå wày thàt thå `åvîlut³înàry làw' dåcråås, thå syståm w³ll `pull sîc³åty dîwn w³th ³t ³ntî thå àbyss'. Thå Clàss Strugglå, Ch³càgî, 1910, p. 87.
Very close to Kautsky's formulations were those of the pioneer Russian Marxist, Plekhanov. He held that the development of production automatically resulted in changes in the superstructure. There is no way human endeavour can block the development of the forces of production. `Social development' is a `process expressing laws'. Gåîrg³ Plåkhànîv, “Thå Rîlå îf thå ²nd³v³duàl ³n H³stîry”, ³n Åssàys ³n H³stîr³càl Màtår³àl³sm, Nåw Yîrk, 1940, p. 41. `The final cause of the social relationships lies in the state of the productive forces.' `Productive forces… determine… social relations, i.e. economic relations'. ³b³d.
He provides a `formula' which sets out a hierarchy of causation in history. The `state of the productive forces' determines the `economic relations' of society. A `socio-political system' then develops on this `economic basis'. `The mentality of men living in society [is] determined in part directly by the economic conditions obtaining and in part by the entire socio-political system that has arisen on that foundation.' Finally, the `various ideologies … reflect the properties of that mentality'. Gåîrg³ Plåkhànîv, Fundàmåntàl Prîblåms îf Màrx³sm, Mîscîw, nd, p. 83.
He would assert that `history is made by men', but then go on to insist that `the average axis of mankind's intellectual development' runs `parallel to that of its economic development', so that in the end all that really matters is the economic development. ³b³d., p. 80.
The outcome of great historical events like the French Revolution did not depend at all on the role played by individuals like Mirabeau or Robespierre:
`No matter what the qualities of a given individual may be, they cannot eliminate the given economic relations if the latter conform to the given state of the productive forces.
Talented people can change only individual features of events, not their general trend.' Plåkhànîv, Thå Rîlå îf thå ²nd³v³duàl ³n H³stîry, îp. c³t., p. 44.
Just as Kautsky's interpretation of Marxism dominated in the parties of the Second International, Plekhanov's was taken up as the orthodoxy by the Stalinist parties from the late 1920s onwards. Wh³ch ³s nît àt àll tî blàmå Plåkhànîv, whî wàs îftån qu³tå sîph³st³càtåd thåîråt³càlly, fîr thå crudånåss îf thå Stàl³n³st uså îf h³s wr³t³ngs. In the hands of Stalin and his `theoreticians' it became an unbendable historical law: development of the forces of production inevitably led to corresponding changes in society, so the growth of industry in Russia would inevitably lead from a `workers' state' to `socialism' and from `socialism' to `communism', regardless of the misery and hardship involved; by contrast, the clearest indication that Western capitalism had outlived its lifespan was the decline in its forces of production.
The reaction against determinism
Stalinist Marxism did not long outlast Stalin himself. The `new left' of the late 1950s and the Maoist left of the mid-1960s both launched assaults on the crude mechanical determinist account of history.
They insisted, rightly, that in Marx's own historical writings - the Class Struggles in France, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The Civil War in France - there is not a hint of a passive, fatalistic approach to historical change. They also laid great emphasis on certain remarks Engels had made in a series of letters he wrote at the very end of his life, in the 1890s, criticising an over-crude use of historical materialism. Engels had written to Starkenburg:
`Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc development is based on economic development. But these all react on 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.' Låttår îf 25th Jànuàry, 1894.
And to Bloch:
`According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than that 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 of the superstructure - political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by victorious classes after a successful battle, etc, juridical forms and even the reflexes of these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas - also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form…
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.' Låttår îf 21/22 Såptåmbår, 1890. Cf. àlsî h³s låttårs tî Schm³dt îf 5th Àugust 1890 ànd 27th Îctîbår 1890, ànd h³s låttår tî Måhr³ng îf 14th July, 1893.
The post-1956 new left went on to argue that even the terms `base and superstructure' were simply a metaphor, not to be taken too seriously. The `reciprocal' influence of the superstructure on the base meant that `determination' was not to be seen as a strict causal relationship.
The Maoist left did not begin with such an explicit break with the past. The doyen of this school, Louis Althusser, was quite willing in his early 1960s writings to quote Stalin himself favourably.
But the Althusserians created a new theoretical structure which destroyed most of the content of the old notions of `base', `superstructure' and `determination'. Society consisted of a number of different structures - the political, the economic, the ideological, the linguistic - each developing at its own speed, and having an impact on the others. At any particular point in history it could be any one of them that dominated the others. It was only `in the last instance' that the economic was `determinant'.
The new left and the Maoist-Althusserian schools were initially very hostile to each other. Såå, fîr ³nstàncå, Å.P. Thîmpsîn's v³gîrîus pîlåm³c àgà³nst thå Àlthussår³àns, Thå Pîvårty îf Thåîry, Lîndîn, 1978. Yet both of them redefined historical materialism in a way that opened the door to a great dose of voluntarism.
For the 1950s new left, this meant moving away from any tight definition of class or any real concern with how social being might affect social consciousness. In the writings about current events by the most prominent British new left figure, E P Thompson - right through from his 1960 essay `Revolution' ²n Nåw Låft Råv³åw. Nî 3, Mày 1960. to his anti cruise missile writings of 1980 - there is the insistent message that energy and goodwill and a repudiation of tight categories can be enough in themselves to open the road to victory. In his more theoretical writings he rejects the view that `economic' factors play any sort of determining role in history, or even that they can be separated out from other factors such as the ideological or judicial. Såå Thå Pîvårty îf Thåîry, îp c³t., pp. 251-252.
Althusser's tone is different: in his earlier writings the key to change is still a party of an essentially Stalinist sort. But there is the same element of voluntarism as in Thompson: if only the party understands the articulation of the different structures, it can force the pace of history, regardless of `economic' factors.
Most of his followers have abandoned any notion of `determination', even in `the last instance', and have moved to positions that deny any possibility of understanding how societies change. So, for instance, one English post-Althusserian, Gareth Stedman Jones, now tells us that the only way to understand any ideology is in its own terms and that you must not make any attempt to interpret its development in terms of the material circumstances of those who adhere to it. Såå, fîr ³nstàncå, h³s åssày, `Råth³nk³ng Chàrt³sm', ³n Lànguàgå îf Clàss (Càmbr³dgå, 1983). We are right back to the old empiricist adage, `Everything is what it is and nothing else.' Such is the mouse that the elephantine structures of Althusserianism have given birth to.
The convergence of the old new left and the Althusserians has created a sort of `common sense' among Marxists which holds that any talk of base and superstructure is really old hat. So widespread has the influence of this `common sense' been that it has even affected people who reject completely the political conclusions of Thompson or Althusser. Såå, fîr ³nstàncå, Nîràh Càrl³n's råmàrk thàt `thå d³st³nct³în båtwåån bàså ànd supårstructurå ³s m³slåàd³ng mîrå îftån thàn ³t ³s usåful', ³n “²s thå Fàm³ly Pàrt îf thå Supårstructurå?” ³n ²ntårnàt³înàl Sîc³àl³sm, Vîl. 26; ànd Àlåx Càll³n³cîs' suggåst³în thàt thå Màrx³st måthîd ³nvîlvås `stàrt³ng frîm rålàt³îns îf prîduct³în ànd tråàt³ng thåm, nît fîrcås îf prîduct³în, às thå ³ndåpåndånt', Màrx³sm ànd Ph³lîsîphy, Lîndîn, 1983, p. 12.
The only concerted resistance to this tendency has come from admirers of the orthodox analytical philosopher G A Cohen. G.À. Cîhån, Kàrl Màrx's Thåîry îf H³stîry: à Dåfåncå, Îxfîrd, 1978. But his defence of Marx involves a complete retreat to the mechanical interpretation of Kautsky and Plekhanov.
The revolutionary materialist alternative
Historically, however, there has always been a revolutionary alternative to either mechanical materialism or voluntarism. It existed in part even in the heyday of Kautskyism in some of the writings of Engels and in the work of the Italian Marxist, Labriola. Såå À. Làbr³îlà, Åssàys în thå Màtår³àl³st Cîncåpt³în îf H³stîry ànd Sîc³àl³sm ànd Ph³lîsîphy, Ch³càgî, 1918.
But the need for a theoretical alternative did not become more widely apparent until the years of the First World War and the Russian Revolution proved the bankruptcy of Kautskyism. It was then that Lenin reread Hegel and concluded, `Intelligent (dialectical) idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid (metaphysical) materialism'. V.². Lån³n, Cîllåctåd Wîrks, Prîgråss Publ³shårs, Mîscîw, Vîl. 38, p. 276.
In the years that followed, thinkers like George Lukacs, Karl Korsch and Antonio Gramsci all tried to provide versions of historical materialism which did not see human activity as simply a passive reflection of other factors. And in his magnificent History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky provided an account of a world historical event which placed massive emphasis on subjective as well as objective factors - and was criticised from a Plekhanovite point of view for doing so. Såå thå cr³t³c³sm îf Trîtsky's pîs³t³în ³n ²sààc Dåutschår, Thå Prîphåt Îutcàst, pp. 240-247.
A non-mechanical, non-voluntarist version of historical materialism is absolutely vital today. It can easily be found in the works of Marx himself, if you supplement his classic account in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy with what he says at various points in The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, The Communist Manifesto, and elsewhere.
Production and society
Marx first sets out his account of historical materialism in The German Ideology of 1846.
He starts from a materialist recognition that human beings are biologically part of nature:
`The premises from which we start are not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find existing and those which they produce by their own activity.
The first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relationship to the rest of nature… The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the actions of men.
We must begin by stating the first real premise of human existence, and therefore of all human history, the premise that men must be able to live in order to `make history'. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. .
[This is] a fundamental condition of all human history which today as thousands of years ago must be daily and hourly fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.' Thå Gårmàn ²dåîlîgy ³n Màrx ànd Ångåls, Cîllåctåd Wîrks, vîl 5, pp. 31, 41-42. Th³s àrt³clå wàs wr³ttån us³ng àn îldår trànslàt³în wh³ch ³s màrg³nàlly d³ffårånt ³n plàcås frîm thàt ³n thå Cîllåctåd Wîrks.
So there is a core activity at any point in history which is a precondition for everything else which happens. This is the activity of work on the material world in order to get food, shelter and clothing.
The character of this activity depends upon the concrete material situation in which human beings find themselves.
This determines the content of the most basic forms of human action. And so it also determines what individuals themselves are like.
`The mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part.
As individuals express their life so they are. What they are therefore coincides with their production, both of what they produce and how they produce.
The nature of individuals thus depends on the material circumstances determining their production …' ³b³d., p. 31.
These passages cannot be properly understood unless Marx's central point about human activity - best expressed in the Theses on Feuerbach (written at the same time as The German Ideology) - is understood. For Marx humanity is part of nature. It arises as a product of biological evolution, and one must never forget its physical dependence on the material world around it. All of its institutions, ideas, dreams and ideals can only be understood as arising from this material reality - even if the route through which they so arise is often long and circuitous. As Labriola put it, `Ideas do not fall from heaven and nothing comes to us in a dream'. Làbr³îlà îp. c³t., p. 55.
But that does not mean humans are not qualitatively distinct from the rest of nature. Like any other species, humanity has its own defining features. For Marx the key such defining features are that human beings have to react back upon the material circumstances in which they find themselves in order to survive:
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life. Thå Gårmàn ²dåîlîgy, îp. c³t., p. 31.
Humans cannot act independently of their circumstances. But this does not mean they can be reduced to them. They are continually involved in `negating' the material objective world around them, in reacting upon it in such a way as to transform both it and themselves.
At each point in history, human beings have to find some way to cope with the needs of material survival. How they cope is not something independent from the objective physical world; rather it is a product of that world. Yet it can never be grasped simply as a mechanical consequence of the physical constitution of nature. It is not mechanical causality, but human action which mediates between the world in which human beings find themselves and the lives they lead.
Production is never individual production. It is only the collective effort of human beings that enables them to get a livelihood from the world around them.
So the central core activity - work - has to be organised socially. Every particular stage in the development of human labour demands certain sorts of social relationships to sustain it.
In The German Ideology Marx refers to the social relations between people at any particular point in history as the `form of intercourse'. And he insists that, `The form of intercourse is again determined by production'. ³b³d., p. 32.
The various institutions that embody human relationships can only be understood as developing out of this core productive interaction:
`The fact is that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations … The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life processes of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they appear in their own or other people's imaginations, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.' ³b³d., p. 35.
In order to maintain their material lives, human beings are forced to act on the world in certain ways - to engage in material production. But that requires certain forms of cooperation between them.
These core relationships provide a framework which everything else humans do has to fit on to. Everything else is, in this sense, based on them. They provide the limits to what is possible in any society.
So, for instance, a hunter-gatherer society does not have the means to store food for more than a few days, and can only survive if its members are continually on the move looking for more foodstuffs. It is therefore restricted in a number of ways: it cannot be made up of bands of more than 20 or so people; the women in it cannot bear more than one child every four or five years, since the children have to be carried when the band looks for food; there is no means by which one section of society could be freed from labour in order to engage in writing, reading, higher arithmetic, etc.
This is the narrowest way in which you can grasp Marx's argument. But he sees it as having even wider implications than this. The relations of material production not only limit the rest of relations in society, they are also the source of the content of these wider relations as well.
The history of society is the history of changes in the ways in which production takes place, each associated with changes in the relations between human beings immediately around the productive process. And these changes in turn then exert a pressure on all the other social relations.
If, for instance, a band of hunter-gatherers adopts a me of radically increasing the food available to them (by, say planting root vegetables for themselves instead of having search for them) and of storing food for long periods of time (for instance, in earthenware pots), this necessarily changes their social relations with each other. Instead of continually moving, they have to stay in one spot until the crop can be harvested; if they are staying in one spot, there is no longer any necessity for restriction on the number of children per woman the crop becomes something which other bands of people can seize, so providing, for the first time, an incentive for warfare, between rival bands.
Changes in the way material production takes place lead changes in the relations of society in general.
And even relations between people which do not arise out production - the games people play with each other, the forms sex takes, the relations of adults and young babies - will affected.
Marx does not at all deny the reality of relations other than directly productive ones. Nor does he deny that they can influence the way production itself takes place. As he puts it in Theories of Surplus Value:
`All circumstances which… affect man, the subject of production, have greater or lesser effect upon his functions and activities, including his functions and activities as creator of material wealth, of commodities. In this sense it can be truly asserted that all human relations and functions, however and wherever they manifest themselves, influence material production and have a more or less determining effect upon it.' Thåîr³ås îf Surplus Vàluå, Pàrt ², Mîscîw, nd, p. 280.
This is even true in pre-class societies. There is a tendency for old patterns of working and living to crystallise into relatively inflexible structures. They become `sanctified' with the development of systems of religion, magic, taboos, rituals and so or At first these systems are carried on even in `bad times', when the short term needs or desires of the individual might lead ti actions which ruin the long term interests of the social collectivity. But, by this very fact, they discourage innovation and move to new forms of production, which would be of long-term as well as short-term benefit.
Exploitation and the superstructure
Something more is needed than simple cooperation between people for the forces of production to develop beyond a certain point. Exploitation is also needed.
While the surplus left after the satisfaction of everyone's minimal needs is small, resources can only be gathered together for further development of the forces of production if the surplus is controlled by a small, privileged minority of society. Hence it is that wherever there is the development of agriculture proper out of horticulture, the growth of trade, the use of dams and canals for flood prevention and irrigation, the building of towns, there are also the beginnings of a polarisation within society between those who exploit and those who are exploited.
The new exploiting group has its origins in its role in production: it is constituted out of those who were most efficient in introducing new methods of agricultural production, or those who pioneered new sorts of trade between one society and its neighbours, or those who could justify themselves not engaging in backbreaking manual labour because of their ability to foresee flood patterns or design waterworks. But from the beginning the new exploiting group secures its control by means other than its role in production. It uses its new wealth to wage war, so further enhancing its wealth through booty and the taking of slaves. It establishes `special bodies of armed men' to safeguard its old and its new wealth against internal and external enemies. It gains control of religious rites, ascribing the advance of the social productive force to its own `supernatural powers'. It rewrites old codes of behaviour into new sets of legal rules that sanctify its position.
The new exploiting group, in short, creates a whole network of non-productive relations to safeguard the privileged position it has gained for itself. It seeks through these political, judicial and religious means to secure its own position. It creates a non-economic `superstructure' to safeguard the source of its own privileges in the economic `base'.
The very function of these `non-economic' institutions means that they have enormous economic impact. They are concerned with controlling the base, with fixing existing relations of exploitation, and therefore in putting a limit on changes in the relations of production, even if this also involves stopping further development of the productive forces.
In ancient China, for example, a ruling class emerged on the basis of certain sorts of material production (agriculture involving the use of hydraulic installations) and exploitation. Its members then sought to preserve their position by creating political and ideological institutions. But in doing so they created instruments that could be used to crush any new social force that emerged out of changes in production (eg out of the growth of handicrafts or trade). On occasions that meant physically destroying the new productive means.
So great is the reciprocal impact of the `superstructure' on the base, that many of the categories we commonly think of as `economic' are in fact constituted by both. So, for instance, `property rights' are judicial (part of the superstructure) but regulate the way exploitation takes place (part of the base).
The way the political and judicial feed back into the economic is absolutely central to Marx's whole approach. It is this alone which enables him to talk of successive, distinct `modes of production' - stages in history in which the organisation of production and exploitation is frozen in certain ways, each with its distinctive ruling class seeking to mould the whole of society to fit in with its requirements.
Far from ignoring the impact of the `superstructure' on the `base', as many ignorant critics have claimed for more than a century, Marx builds his whole account of human history around it.
Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces. How? Because of the activity of the `superstructure' in trying to stop new forms of production and exploitation that challenge the monopoly of wealth and power of the old ruling class. Its laws declare the new ways to be illegal. Its religious institutions denounce them as immoral. Its police use torture against them. Its armies sack towns where they are practised.
The massive political and ideological struggles that arise as a result, decide, for Marx, whether a rising class, based on new forces of production, displaces an old ruling class. And so it is an absolute travesty of his views to claim that he `neglects' the political or ideological element.
But the growth of superstructural institutions not only freezes existing production relations, it can also have profound effects on the relations between the members of the ruling class themselves, and therefore on the way they react to the other classes in society.
Those who command the armies, the police and the priesthoods live off the surplus obtained by exploitation just as much as do the direct exploiters. But they also develop particular interests of their own: they want their share of the surplus to be as great as possible; they want certain sorts of material production to take place to suit the particular needs of their institutions; they want their sort of lifestyle to be valued more highly than that of those involved in direct production.
Their attempt to gain their own particular aims can lead to the building of ever more complex institutions, to elaborate rules about social behaviour, to endless battles for place and influence. The end result can be labyrinthine structures in which the source of wealth and privilege in material production is completely forgotten.
When this happens, the superstructure can go beyond simply freezing the economic activities on which it is based. It can become a drain on them that prevents their reproduction - and, in doing so, destroys the resources upon which the whole of society, including the superstructure itself, depends. Then material reality catches up with it and the whole social edifice comes tumbling down.
But none of these developments take place without massive political and ideological struggles. It is these which determine whether one set of social activities (those of the superstructure) cramp a different set of social activities (those involved in maintaining and developing the material base). It is these which decide, for Marx, whether the existing ruling class maintains its power until it ruins society, or whether a rising class, based on new forms of production, displaces it.
`The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle', wrote Marx and Engels at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto. But the class struggle is precisely the struggle between those who use the political and ideological institutions of the superstructure to maintain their power over the productive `base' and exploitation, and those who put up resistance to them.
The superstructure exists to defend exploitation and its fruits. Any real fight against the existing structures of exploitation becomes a fight against the superstructure, a political fight. As Lenin put it, `Politics is concentrated economics.'
Marxism does not see political struggle as simply an automatic, passive reflection of the development of the forces production. It is economic development that produces the class forces that struggle for control of society. But how that struggle goes depends upon the political mobilisation that takes place within each class.
The key role of changes in production
We are now in a position to reassess Engels' statement that' various elements of the superstructure… also exercise their influence on the course of historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their forms'. Quîtåd åàrl³år.
Under any form of class rule a range of structures are built to reinforce and institutionalise exploitation. Those in control these institutions have interests of their own, which influence everything else which happens in society - including the nature of material production itself.
However, that cannot be the end of the matter, as the `voluntarist' rendering of Engels' remarks implies. There is still I question of where the superstructural institutions themselves come from. And there is the all-important question of what happens if the superstructure develops in such ways as to impede the reproduction of its own material base.
Marx insists that simply to assert that everything in society influences everything - the superstructure the base as well as vice versa - leads nowhere. He takes the point up in The Poverty Philosophy, his polemic against Proudhon, written soon after The German Ideology:
`The production relations of society form a whole. M Proudhon considers economic relations as so many social phases engendering one another, resulting one from the other… The only drawback to this method is that when he comes to examine a single one of these phases, M Proudhon cannot explain it without having recourse to all the other relations of society; which relations he has not yet made his dialectical movement engender.' Thå Pîvårty îf Ph³lîsîphy, îp. c³t., p. 166.
In his writings Marx points to three different consequences of such a view of society as an undifferentiated whole, with everything influencing everything else.
Firstly, it can lead to a view in which the existing form of society is seen as eternal and unchanging (the view which Marx ascribed to bourgeois economists, seeing social relations as governed by `eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any'; it is the view that underlies the barrenness of the modern pseudo-science of society, sociology).
Secondly, it can lead to viewing the dynamic of society as lying in some mystical force that lies outside society (Hegel's `world spirit' or Weber's `rationalisation').
Thirdly, it can lead to the view that what exists today can only be grasped in its own terms, through its own language and ideas, without any reference to anything else (the position of those idealist philosophers who followed Hegel in 19th century Germany, and of more recent thinkers like Collingwood, Winch and the ex-Althusserians).
Marx's way out of this impasse is to locate the one element in the social whole that has a tendency to cumulative development of its own. This is the action of humans in working on their environment to get a living for themselves. Past labour provides the means for increasing the output of present labour: both material means (tools, machines, access to raw materials) and new knowledge. But in adopting the new ways of working, humans also adopt new ways of relating to each other.
These changes will often be so small as to be barely perceptible (a changed relationship between two people here, an additional person engaged in a particular labour process somewhere else). But if they continue, they will bring about systematic molecular change in the whole social structure. The succession of quantitative changes then has a qualitative impact.
Marx does not deny the possibility of changes in other aspects of social life. A ruler may die and be succeeded by another with a quite different personality. People may tire of one game and start playing another. The accident of birth or upbringing may produce a gifted musician or painter. But all such changes are accidents. There is no reason why they should lead to cumulative social change of any sort. They can produce random change in society, but not a dynamic which moves society in any specific direction.
Material production, on the other hand, does have a tendency to move in one direction rather than another. Its output is wealth, the resources that allow lives to be free from material deprivation.
And these resources can be piled up in ever greater quantities.
This does not mean that forces of production always develop as Kautsky, Plekhanov and, more recently, G A Cohen have claimed. As we have seen, the clash between new ways of producing and old social relations is a central feature in history.
Marx noted in The Communist Manifesto that `conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes'. Thå Cîmmun³st Màn³fåstî ³n Màrx, Ångåls, Lån³n, Thå Åssånt³àl Låft, Lîndîn, 1960, p. 7. The outcome of the clash between the new and the old did not have to be the defeat of the old. It could be the stifling of the new. There could be the `mutual destruction of the contending classes'. ³b³d., p. 15.
`Regression' (from more advanced forms of production to more backward) is far from being exceptional historically. Civilisation after civilisation has collapsed back into `barbarism' (i.e. agricultural production without towns) - witness the dead `cities in the jungle' to be found in Latin America, south east Asia or central Africa; there are several instances of hunter-gatherer peoples who show signs of once having been horticulturalists (eg some tribes of the Amazon). Fîr àn åxcållånt àccîunt îf hîw succåss³vå Brînzå Àgå c³v³l³sàt³îns cîllàpsåd ³ntî `dàrk àgås', såå V. Gîrdîn Ch³ldå, Whàt Hàppånåd ³n H³stîry, Hàrmîndswîrth, 1948, pp. l34, 135-136, 165. Fîr `rågråss³în' ³n thå Àmàzîn, såå C. Låv³ Stràuss, “Thå Cîncåpt îf Àrchà³sm ³n Ànthrîpîlîgy” ³n Structuràl Ànthrîpîlîgy, Hàrmîndswîrth, 1968, pp. l07-112. It depends upon the particular, historically developed features of any society whether the new forces of production can develop and the classes associated with them break through. At one extreme, one can imagine societies which have become so sclerotic that no innovation in production is possible (with, for instance, closely circumscribed religious rites determining how every act of production is performed). At the other extreme, there is modem capitalist society where the be all and end all of life is meant to be increasing the productivity of labour.
In fact, most human societies have been somewhere in between. Because human life is harsh, people have wanted to increase the livelihood they can get for a certain amount of labour, even though certain activities have been sanctified and others tabooed. Generally speaking, there has been a very slow development of the forces of production until the point has been reached where a new class begins to challenge the old. What has happened then has depended on the balance of class forces on the one hand, and the leadership and understanding available to the rival classes on the other.
However, even if the development of the forces of production is the exception, not the norm, it does not invalidate Marx's argument. For those societies where the forces of production break through will thrive and, eventually, reach the point of being able to dominate those societies where the forces of production have been stifled. Very few societies moved on from the stage of barbarism to that of civilisation; but many of those that did not were enslaved by those that did. Again feudal barons and oriental despotic gentry were usually able to beat back the challenge of urban tradesmen and merchants; but this did not stop them all being overwhelmed by the wave of capitalism that spread out from the western fringe of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It did not matter, at the end of the day, how grandiose or elaborate the superstructure of any society was. It rested on a `base' in material production. If it prevented this base from developing, then the superstructure itself was eventually doomed. In this sense Engels was right to say that the `economic element finally asserts itself as dominant'.
As a matter of historical fact, the forces of production did succeed in breaking down and transforming the totality of social relations in which they grew up.
Base, superstructure and social change
Much of the confusion which has arisen among Marxists over the interpretation of Marx's Preface to A Critique of Political Economy lies in the definition of the `base' on which `the legal and political superstructure' rises.
For some people the `base' has, in effect, been the material interaction of human beings and nature - the forces of production. For others it has been the social relations within which this interaction occurs, the social relations of production.
You can justify any one of these positions if you take particular quotations from the Preface in isolation from the rest of the passage and from Marx's other writings. For at one point he talks of the `sum total of these relations of production' as `the real basis on which arises a political and legal superstructure'. But he says earlier that `relations of production… correspond to a definite form of development of their material productive forces', and he goes on to contrast `the material transformation of the material conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science' and `legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophical forms'. It is the `material productive forces' which come into conflict with `the existing relations of production'.
In fact he is not making a single distinction in the Critique between `base' and `superstructure'. Two distinctions are involved. There is the distinction between the `forces of production' and the relations of production. And then there is the distinction between the relations of production and the remaining social relations.
The reason for the confusion is this. The `base' is the combination of forces and relations of production. But one of the elements in this combination is `more basic' than the other. It is the `forces of production' that are dynamic, which go forward until they `come into conflict' with the static `relations of production'. Relations of production `correspond' to forces of production, not the other way round.
Of course, there is a certain sense in which it is impossible to separate material production from the social relations it involves. If new ways of working do involve new social relations, then obviously they cannot come into existence until these new social relations do.
But, as we saw above, there are reasons for assigning priority to the forces of production. Human groups who succeed in changing the ways they work in order to develop the forces of production will be more successful than those that don't. Small, cumulative changes in the forces of production can take place, encouraging changes in the relations between people which are just as small but also just cumulative. People change their relations with each other because they want to produce the means of livelihood more easily: increasing the means of livelihood is the aim, changes in the social relations of production the unintended consequence. The forces of production rebel against the existing relations of production, not the other way round.
So, for instance, if hunter-gatherers decide to change their social relations with each other so as to engage in horticulture, this is not primarily a result of any belief that horticultural social relations are superior to hunter-gatherer social relations; it is rather that they want access to the increased material productivity of horticulture over hunting and gathering.
In the same way, it is not preference for one set of relations around the production process rather than another that leads the burghers to begin to challenge feudal society. It is rather that for this particular grouping of people within feudalism, the only way to increase their own control over the means of livelihood (to develop the forces of production under their control) is to establish new production relations.
Even when the way one society is organised changes, because of the pressure of another society on it (as when India was compelled to adopt a European style land tenure system in the 19th century, or when hunter-gatherers have been persuaded by colonial administrators and missionaries to accept a settled agricultural life), the reason the pressure exists is that the other society disposes of more advanced forces of production (which translate into more effective means of waging war). And the `social relations of production' will not endure unless they are successful in organising material production - in finding a `base' in material production - in the society that is pressurised into adopting them. Where they do not find such a `base' (as with the Ik in Northern Uganda) the result can even be the destruction of society. Cf. C Turnbull, Thå Mîuntà³n Påîplå, Lîndîn, 1974.
Expansion of material production is the cause, the social organisation of production the effect. The cause itself can be blocked by the old form of organisation of society. There is no mechanical principle which means that the expansion of material production - and with it the changes in social relations - will automatically occur. But in any society there will be pressures in this direction at some point or other. And these pressures will have social consequences, even if they are successfully resisted by those committed to the old social relations.
The distinction between forces and relations of production is prior to the second distinction, between `economic base' and the superstructure. The development of the forces of production leads to certain changes in the relations of production. These in turn result in changes in the other relations of society being made, until a whole range of institutions of a non-economic sort help reproduce existing economic relations (and so resist further economic change).
The point of these distinctions is to provide an understanding of how society changes. If the forces of production are static, then there is no reason why any society should undergo systematic change at all. The existing social relations will simply tend to reproduce themselves, so that at most there can be random, accidental changes in the relations of people to each other. Neither the social relations of production nor the wider social relations will provide any impetus to the revolutionary social changes that do occur (eg from societies of small bands to those of settled villages, or from those of medieval feudal manors to those of advanced industrial capitalist cities).
There is a further confusion in some of the discussion on forces and relations of production. This concerns what the `relations of production' are.
At one point in the Preface Marx equates the social relation of production with property relations. People like Cohen have given this view a central place in their own accounts of historical materialism.
It seems to me to limit the notion of the `social relations c production' far too much. Much of the power of Marx's account of history lies in the way in which it shows how small changes in the forces of production lead to small, cumulative changes in the social relations arising directly at the point of production, until these challenge the wider relations of society. These small changes might involve new property relations, but in many, many important cases do not.
For instance, an increase in the number of journeymen working for the average master craftsman in a medieval city is not change in property relations. But it does change the social relations in the town in a way which may have very important implications. Similar considerations apply with many other significant historical developments, from the first planting of seed by hunter-gatherers to changes in production methods in capitalist countries today.
To sum up the argument so far. There is not one distinction in Marx, but two. The forces of production exert pressure on the existing relations of production. And those in turn come into conflict with the existing superstructure.
Once this is grasped, it is possible to deal with the questions which are sometimes raised as to whether particular institutions belong to the base or the superstructure.
There is a sense in which the questions themselves are misframed. The distinction between base and superstructure is not distinction between one set of institutions and another, with economic institutions on one side and political, judicial, ideological, etc institutions on the other. It is a distinction between relations that are directly connected with production and those that are not. Many particular institutions include both.
So, for instance, the medieval church was a superstructural institution, defending ideologically existing forms of feudal exploitation. But it acquired such large landholdings of its own that no account of the economic structure of medieval society can ignore it. In the same way, modern capitalist states arose out of the need for `bodies of armed men' to protect particular capitalist ruling classes. But such protection has rarely been possible without the state intervening directly in production.
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