The Base and the Superstructure

[A delineation of the "Marxhouse" from Hewett]

[Karl Marx describes what will be interpreted as the base/infrastructure-superstructure model in The German Ideology and the Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, which Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser develop further in the Prison Notebooks and “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” respectively.]

The base-superstructure model is a theoretical framework that charts the different parts of society, how the elements interact, and how they form a coherent social structure. It is a tool that has been used by Marxists to schematize the shape that society takes at a particular time (hence it is a historical model). It has two main elements: the base and the superstructure, both of which can be specified further into two levels.

The base is the economic foundation of society, what Marx describes as “the economic structure” determining “the material conditions of life” (PCPE 425). Its first level consists of the means of production, i.e. the actual raw materials used (or available, or discovered at the time) in the production process (nature as resource, man as labor; this is the what of production) and the nature of the production process itself (i.e. if, e.g., it employs a subsistence method, such as in individual household production; an artisanal system, with individualized producers and no form imposed from the top; or an assembly-line factory system, as in current industrialized mass production; this can be referred to as technology in the broadest sense, that is, how the raw materials are converted into economic goods, i.e. the how of production) (what and how in GI 177). These means of production, according to Marx, are constrained by the historical context; they “depend first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence [men] find in existence and have to reproduce” (GI 177).

This process of materially producing the conditions of existence is, as Marx phrases it, a “social production of [people’s] life,” i.e. in producing material goods for their economic subsistence, men are not Robinson Crusoes producing in isolation just for themselves—they necessarily relate to each other, i.e. “men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will” (PCPE 425). These relations form the relations of production, the second level of the economic base. These are the relationships that a worker forms with a co-worker, an employee with a boss, an employee with a customer, a worker from this part of the production process (e.g. the packing of cans with sardines) with another worker from that part (e.g. the printing of the corporate logo on the can), etc. Thus, Marx can say, referring to the economic base, that “this mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production 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” (GI 177). The economic base, in other words, conditions not only the actual goods produced and how they are produced, but the relations that people form themselves, which, moreover, does not merely refer to economic relations (GI 177). The most important thing that the relation of production gets to determine is, of course, how its products (the fruits of production) are to be distributed to the people so related (i.e. in specific relations with each other, relations, most often, of exploitation, i.e. relations between the exploiter and the exploited).

Above the economic base (above its two levels) rises “a legal and political superstructure,” the first level of the superstructure (PCPE 425). As delineated more specifically by Althusser, this is the political realm he calls the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) (Gramsci calls this political society), which consists of the particular political system a society adopts, the form of government, the constitution, the laws, and government institutions (including the military) (92).

Above the legal and political structure—simply put, the State—lie all other institutions, i.e. “social [. . .] and intellectual life process in general” that determines the consciousness of men (PCPE 425). Here we find what Althusser calls the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) (Gramsci calls this civil society). These include legal institutions other than the government (e.g. political parties, non-government organizations, etc.), religions, schools, the family, the media, culture—institutions surrounding men, propounding certain ideologies, influencing them how to think, i.e. shaping their consciousness (96). Thinking itself, the content of thought, and what we take to be true can be found on this level.

What Marx claims (and this is where his materialism becomes evident) is that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior” (GI 180). At yet another place, he says, “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” (PCPE 425).

It would seem then that for Marx, ideology—how we think, what we take to be true—is determined by material things, our economic conditions; that our consciousness simply reflects material conditions that are already there. What we take to be true is already defined by preexisting material, economic realities, which are simply transposed into the realm of ideas, into the ideology in our head, and it is that ideology that we take as truth.

Marx elaborates that “consciousness [itself] can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual [material, economic] life process” (180). Consciousness itself, ideas, notions of truth—ideology—is all about, has as its content the existence of men, which Marx seems to interpret is nothing other than their material, economic existence. Thought itself, in other words, consciousness, ideology, truth, is nothing but thought about the economic state of things.

Marx reiterates this when he says that “the social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, 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” (GI 180). The shape of and any change in society, then, can be accounted for by the life of individuals—but their material life, their life as materially producing beings, not as abstract thinkers musing about the ideas in their head. Material and economic conditions determine what things look like in society, with a minimal and perhaps even impotent role for ideas and notions of truth.

This is reinforced by Marx’s description of the movement of the social structure, which describes how change comes about in society. Change in the social structure, according to Marx, happens when “at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or [. . .] with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto” (PCPE 425). This is to say that the conflict that causes societal change, the conflict that changes the shape of society, happens at the base, when economic forces (the means of production) conflict with how they are structured (the relations of production), when “these relations [of production] turn into [. . .] fetters” for the economic forces (PCPE 425).

Moreover, “with the change of the economic foundations the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed” (425). The base then bears the superstructure. All movement originates at the base, which just happens to take the superstructure with it, thereby changing the face of society. Moreover, the movements of the base and the superstructure involve a delay as “no social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself” (426). It would seem, then, that Marx is a straightforward materialist, more specifically an economic determinist in the conviction that economics (more specifically: productive forces, i.e. the means of production, the bottom of the bottom level) determines all other aspects of life (including consciousness). (Hawkes, in Ideology, in an attempt to save Marx from economic determinism, blames Engels for this interpretation.)

The seeming reduction of the role of thought, of ideas, of notions of truth, is made worse by what comes to be known as the dominant ideology thesis, in which Marx is interpreted as suggesting that in a given society, there is only one ideology, i.e. one consciousness, one collective notion of truth. Marx explains that “the class which [controls] the means of production [i.e. the economic base . . .] has control at the same time over the means of mental production [i.e. the superstructure], so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (GI 192). This implies then that there is only one ideology in society: the ideology of the ruling class that dominates society.

Marx continues to explain that “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance” (GI 192). The ideology in society then—the only ideology—is not even what can be considered as an accurate notion of truth. Rather, it is simply a way of viewing the state of things such that the rule of the dominant class, whose ideology it is, its hold on the economic mechanisms of a particular society (the factors of production, the structure of production, how things are distributed, who are compensated and with how much, etc.), is perpetuated. The ideology we get, then, our only notion of truth, is a skewed notion at best (or is perhaps un-skewed only for a certain group of people, members of the dominant class). Marx thereby concludes by saying that the dominant class “rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus [the ideas of the ruling class] are the ruling ideas of the epoch” (GI 192).

This dominant ideology thesis is considered a crude reading of Marx. While this reading has some validity, it does not capture the full complexity of Marx’s thought. Despite the crude materialism sometimes attributed to him, Marx himself, in certain places, intimates that he is not an economic determinist. In one of the places where he distinguishes the base from the superstructure, he says, “The material transformation of the economic conditions of production [. . .] can be determined with the precision of natural science,” and this—with its characteristic precision—is separated from “the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict [in the base] and fight it out” (PCPE 425-6). Perhaps then the base serves as a lever, but by no means can it exactly approximate—since it is not precise—what the superstructure, ideology, is going to look like. In fact, that may be a site in which, coupled with the conflict in the base, men can, in Marx’s words, “fight it out,” to determine the shape society is going to take—which perhaps can affect the base itself.

This is the same question that twentieth-century Marxist intellectuals would confront, foremost of which are Gramsci and Althusser. Gramsci, reading Marx’s historical (rather than the theoretical) works, makes Marx’s model more dynamic through the concepts of ideologies and hegemony. Althusser, focusing on the State, posits ideology as material and subjectifying, thereby emphasizing the unity of both infrastructure and superstructure. Yet other possibilities are traced by the flat social formation and simultaneous historical moments.

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16 thoughts on “The Base and the Superstructure

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  8. Is it really easy to define consciousness and unconsciousness which in fact gave rise to several other concepts said to be hidden?
    I am also a fan of Marx and wishes to say that mind is only one the difference exists when you start dividing what unconsciousness wants to follow and consciousness doesn’t surrender.


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  14. The base should be relations vs. FORCES of production, not MEANS of production. Labour is a force of production. Only tools are means of production. The bourgeoisie owns the latter, not the former. This makes a big difference: between technological determinism and an essentially humanist reading of Marx, where history is the development of humanity’s powers (albeit alienated).

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