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On the relation between base and superstructure - Alik & Sharmistha

22 April 2015
On the relation between base and superstructure

Alik Chakraborty and Sharmistha Choudhury

The term 'base and superstructure' and also the relation between the two are very important from the Marxist point of view. Social development cannot be analysed without understanding this relation. Thus it is imperative that every Marxist understands it well. Since the inception of Marxism, an overwhelming amount of confusion also encompassed this question. Particularly this debate cropped up in an extremely vigorous way after the great October socialist revolution. The development of the new state is related with the basic and superstructural change of society. And now it is so much important to grasp this because there are numerous ideas are encompassing us. Post modernist thought is one of these thought which actually divert our thought from the general law of development of the society into some individualistic approach. We will discuss all this in brief so that we can have a basic understanding of these subjects. Let us start from what is base and superstructure.

In several of Marx's writings the question has been thoroughly discussed. Hence we shall quote from The Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

"In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are independent of their will, relations of production which 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 basis on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite form of social consciousness. (Emphasis added.)

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.

At a certain stage in their development the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto.

From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.

With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.

In considering such transformations, a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the material conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophical – in short ideological – forms in which men become conscious of the conflict and fight it out.

... We do not judge a period of transformation by its consciousness; on the contrary this consciousness must itself be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflicts between the social productive forces and the relations of production."

So the idea is that the economic relations of production in a society determine the forms of the state and social consciousness, or, more broadly, all social and ideological structures, such as law, politics, religion, education, art, etc. So, economy is the base and on this all ideological, social, cultural and legal structures are built.

In short we can say that base means the relation of production which develops independent of human will, while the necessary ideological, political, cultural and other structures conform with this base and form the superstructure of a society. There is no big debate over this explanation. The real debate concerns the relation between base and superstructure. There has been a lot of confusion among Marxists regarding the relation between these two since the time of Marx. In several letters Engels warned about this to their followers. From these letters we can get a clearer picture about this relation and the explanation too.

In a letter to J. Bloch, Engels explained in a masterly way: "According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other 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 of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all 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 (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree." (Engels to J Bloch : 1890)

In this letter Engels clearly stated that the economic situation is the basis and the various elements such as political forms etc. form the superstructure. He stated that the economic situation is ultimately the determining factor (emphasis added), not the only determining one. All superstructural elements have a determining role in every social change. But the change depends on the ultimate change of the economic situation. So there is a dialectical relation between base and superstructure. Not only does change in economic basis influence superstructural change, at the same time superstructural change also influences economic change. Both base and superstructure have a determining role in social change, but base has the ultimately determining role.

So Engels further said, "We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one. The Prussian state also arose and developed from historical, ultimately economic, causes. But it could scarcely be maintained without pedantry that among the many small states of North Germany, Brandenburg was specifically determined by economic necessity to become the great power embodying the economic, linguistic and, after the Reformation, also the religious difference between North and South, and not by other elements as well (above all by its entanglement with Poland, owing to the possession of Prussia, and hence with international political relations — which were indeed also decisive in the formation of the Austrian dynastic power)."

As we know in this planet through evolution humans became the highest developed and conscious compared to all other animals. Humans make their own history. So naturally the conscious role of humans in the development of civilization is inevitable. Without that we cannot even think of civilization. So according to the Marxist point of view production and reproduction of real life is ultimately the determining element of history. From this perspective economy creates the real foundation of human society. As Marx said in the Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, "the economic structure of society forms the 'real basis' on which 'rises a legal and political superstructure'." Some people create confusion over whether the 'base' is the economy or the forces of production or the relations of production. As we know, the contradiction between productive force and production relation plays a key role in changing society. So we can say that that neither productive force alone nor production relation or others forms the base. The base is the sum total of all of this. So Engels clearly stated that economic situation is the base. And superstructure is, according to Engels, "political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas all of these form the superstructure of the society."

The question of the relation between base and superstructure has become a complex and debatable issue since the time of Marx and Engels. Essentially Marx had to establish its relation to fight against all anarchists and pseudo-socialists. In the time of Marx and Engels all such thinkers were trying to establish the law of social change by evading the basic contradiction within society. So Marx had to establish that the change of society takes place independent of human will. The resolution of the contradiction between productive forces and relation of production causes social change. So he formulated that: "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 hand mill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill society with an industrial capitalist." (The Poverty of Philosophy)

A good example can be seen in Engels's book Anti Duhring. Duhring's opinion regarding social change was basically metaphysical. He stated that social change basically depends on force. According to Engels, Duhring's opinion "starts from the principle that the political conditions are the decisive cause of the economic situation and that the reverse relationship represents only a reaction of a second order ... so long as the political grouping is not taken for its own sake, as the starting-point, but is treated merely as a stomach-filling agency, one must have a portion of reaction stowed away in one's mind, however radical a socialist and revolutionary one may seem to be. {D. K. G. 230-31}" (Anti-Duhring)

Against this Engels said, "That is Herr Dühring's theory. In this and in many other passages it is simply set up, decreed, so to speak. Nowhere in the three fat tomes is there even the slightest attempt to prove it or to disprove the opposite point of view. And even if the arguments for it were as plentiful as blackberries, Herr Dühring would give us none of them. For the whole affair has been already proved through the famous original sin, when Robinson Crusoe made Friday his slave. That was an act of force, hence a political act. And inasmuch as this enslavement was the starting-point and the basic fact underlying all past history and inoculated it with the original sin of injustice, so much so that in the later periods it was only softened down and "transformed into the more indirect forms of economic dependence" {D. C. 19}; and inasmuch as "property founded on force" {D. Ph. 242}, which has asserted itself right up to the present day, is likewise based on this original act of enslavement, it is clear that all economic phenomena must be explained by political causes, that is, by force. And anyone who is not satisfied with that is a reactionary in disguise."

Engels analysed the cause of the enslavement of human by human with the help of that example which was actually in Duhring's book to establish that the cause of enslavement of human by human is based on force. How did Crusoe come to enslave Friday? According to the story of Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe had a sword. So Duhring reached the conclusion that by the sword Crusoe enslaved Man Friday. Then Engels said, "But let us look a little more closely at this omnipotent 'force' of Herr Dühring's. Crusoe enslaved Friday "sword in hand" {D. C. 23}. Where did he get the sword? Even on the imaginary islands of the Robinson Crusoe epic, swords have not, up to now, been known to grow on trees, and Herr Dühring provides no answer to this question. If Crusoe could procure a sword for himself, we are equally entitled to assume that one fine morning Friday might appear with a loaded revolver in his hand, and then the whole "force" relationship is inverted. Friday commands, and it is Crusoe who has to drudge. We must apologise to the readers for returning with such insistence to the Robinson Crusoe and Friday story, which properly belongs to the nursery and not to the field of science — but how can we help it? We are obliged to apply Herr Dühring's axiomatic method conscientiously, and it is not our fault if in doing so we have to keep all the time within the field of pure childishness. So, then, the revolver triumphs over the sword; and this will probably make even the most childish axiomatician comprehend that force is no mere act of the will, but requires the existence of very real preliminary conditions before it can come into operation, namely, instruments, the more perfect of which gets the better of the less perfect; moreover, that these instruments have to be produced, which implies that the producer of more perfect instruments of force, vulgo arms, gets the better of the producer of the less perfect instruments, and that, in a word, the triumph of force is based on the production of arms, and this in turn on production in general — therefore, on "economic power", on the "economic situation", on the material means which force has at its disposal."

In this manner Engels repudiated Duhring's theory of force and established that force is the midwife of a new society. And that force is also applied on the basis of political economy. Force can be applied under the condition of the contradiction between productive force and the relation of production.

Marx and Engels had to fight tremendously against those types of views which denied that the ultimately determining factor is economy. So there was a trend to downplay or even ignore the superstructural factors for changes of society and regard the economic cause as only determining factor. Engels admitted that also. He said in the letter to Bloch, "Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction." However, at the same time he also stated, "History is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it."

Engels even censured his contemporary disciples for going to practice without understanding of theoretical approach. He said, "Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent "Marxists" from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too..."

In spite of repeated warnings by Engels, his contemporary fellow intellectual comrades who later became authorities of Marxism like Kautsky, Plekhanov etc. could not comprehend the actual relation between base and superstructure.

After the death of Marx and Engels a mechanical view of history came to be regarded as 'Marxist' orthodoxy. It was the period when Marxism spread all over the workers' movement in Europe and also in America. At that time leaders of the Second International like Karl Kautsky also succumbed to such type of mechanical idea. For him, "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." (Karl Kautsky, Economic Doctrine of Karl Marx) He also said, "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." That means to him revolutionary movements cannot alter this pattern of development. So the task of revolutionary socialists under modern capitalism was not to try to cut short the historical process, until capitalism was ready to turn into socialism. Although Lenin developed his concept regarding Party and the significance of political struggle with the help of Kautsky's earlier formulation, yet his later formulations like the one quoted above led him to decline to revisionism and be unable to understand the significance of seizure of power in Russia by the Bolsheviks.

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. (Emphasis added) 'Social development' is a 'process expressing laws. The final cause of the social relationships lies in the state of the productive forces.' 'Productive forces ... determine ... social relations, i.e. economic relations'. (Plekhanov, Essays in Historical Materialism)

The abovementioned statements of Kautsky and Plekhanov are directly contradictory to what Engels stated. Engels clearly said "...............Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event." And "Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances". Clearly, according to Engels, development takes place not automatically with the development of productive forces. Rather, there are innumerable factors accruing in society which obviously influence and alter the economic condition. We know that the socialist revolution cannot happen without superstructural change at first. At a certain stage of development of production, productive forces come into conflict with the relation of production and the change of the relation of production becomes inevitable. In that situation if political development of society is compatible with this contradiction then that change takes place. This political development is ultimately dependent on the economic situation but is not automatically created through economic situation. Political / ideological movement and the position of all forces active in society create this condition along with the economic conflict or situation. So, the objective situation and subjective preparation both are determining factors for every social change. But the 'theory of automatic development' confined the leaders of the Second International to the economic struggle only and they took the line of waiting eternally for the majority of workers in society to come forward before going for socialist revolution. Stalin pointed out correctly in his book Foundation of Leninism, "...concerning the conditions for the seizure of power by the proletariat. The opportunists assert that the proletariat cannot and ought not to take power unless it constitutes a majority in the country. No proofs are brought forward; for there are no proofs, either theoretical or practical, that can bear out this absurd thesis.

Let us assume that this is so, Lenin replies to the gentlemen of the Second International; but suppose a historical situation has arisen (a war, an agrarian crisis, etc.) in which the proletariat, constituting a minority of the population, has an opportunity to rally around itself the vast majority of the labouring masses; why should it not take power then?"

History has proved this every time. If economic situation is favourable for social change but political preparation has not matured then revolution cannot take place. We know that the world situation was favourable for socialist revolution at the time of the First World War but the revolution was successful only in Russia. Why? It was not only because economic crisis had broken over Russia, but also because at the same time there was a revolutionary party capable of leading the proletariat. These two aspects together were capable of breaking the weakest link of imperialism in Russia and primarily the superstructural change took place, that is political power was seized. The same happened at the time of the Chinese revolution also. After the Second World War there was a possibility for revolution in many colonial and semi-colonial countries. A good example is India itself. But the political and ideological factors were responsible for the failure of those revolutions. We know that if the Communist Party of India hadn't mechanically followed the line of people's war at the time of Second World War at that juncture history may be different.

So we can say that historical materialism does not see human activity as a passive reflection of the economic situation. Human activity can also change the economic course of society.

Economic determinism was properly fought out by Lenin at the time of the great October Revolution and the revolutionary movement went ahead defeating economism, opportunism, pacifism, liquidationism and like trends at that time. But when the revolutionary movements were to some extent on a down curve and in the eve of socialist reconstruction in USSR, such mechanical trends came back again in the communist movement. There was a pressing need in Russia for rapid development of productive force within a short time to develop socialist reconstruction and to save revolution. Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Stalin boldly faced this challenge and made great headway in socialist construction. But while emphasising the development of production, there came another tendency – that superstructural change will automatically happen with the development of productive forces and change with the changing production relations. But it is not easy to drive away human practices of thousands of years. So there must be a conscious effort to change cultural, ideological and political relations continuously. It is a continuous process. We know that revolution is a continuous process which has to change not only production relations, but also the entire superstructure. Though Stalin never said or wrote that superstructural change is not necessary – he only said that development of production and productive force is a necessary condition for socialist construction – yet he failed to adequately spot the danger of development of bureaucracy in the superstructure that came with the speedy development of productive forces. For speedy development of productive forces some bureaucratic development could not be avoided in a country like Russia but those problems were not sufficiently addressed and could not be resolved afterwards. At the same time there was a problem to develop the form of state so that it transcended the bourgeois state in all respects. Regarding the question of democracy, active participation of people in the state activity was not properly dealt with at that time and also after the victory in the Second World War. It was in this lacuna that Krushchev was able to capture state power on the behalf of the exploiting class just by capturing the leadership of the party and state. This phenomenon needs greater discussion elsewhere. We have only mentioned it here to show how important the understanding between relation of base and superstructure is. Mao Tse Tung also tried to resolve these problems in the course of the Chinese revolution. He also noted that the overemphasis on economic development in USSR and problems of Stalin's thought regarding this. He criticized Stalin's view regarding economic problems of USSR. On this question he mentioned that the superstructural question had not been properly addressed. He said, "Capitalism leaves behind it the commodity form, which we must still retain for the time being. Commodity exchange laws governing value play no regulating role in our production. This role is played by planning, by the great leap forward under planning, by politics-in-command. Stalin speaks only of the production relations, not of the superstructure, nor of the relationship between superstructure and economic base." (Concerning Economic Problems Of Socialism In The USSR)

Mao made some developments regarding this question. The call of Cultural Revolution was also a step forward. But still this problem was not adequately resolved. The relation between ideology, politics and economy and in short base and superstructure is a very big question in our contemporary situation also. Many problems in the communist movements have cropped up due to lack of proper understanding of this problem. In intellectual sphere there are numerous postmodernist thought are making hindrance to develop revolutionary thought and the thought which depend on class struggle. With the declining of communist movement these thoughts have encompassing not only reactionary intellectuals but progressive intellectuals also. These thoughts are actually negate the basic laws of development of society and developed a pragmatic individualistic attitude to analyse the social development. For that they primarily negated the actual relation of base and superstructure. For instance let us talk on the structuralist and post sstructuaralist notion. There are many problems in understanding and practice to comprehend the relation between form and content, class and caste, class and gender etc. In cultural movement there developed two extreme trends. One is that form is the most important thing and content is secondary and another is content is everything form is nothing. Between the relation of class and caste there has evolved the same problem. Once there was the understanding that through the class struggle caste, gender and other problems would be automatically solved. That is extreme and erroneous. Another extreme is that caste struggle is primary and sometimes the faulty notion that in Indian context class is caste has also cropped up. On the question of gender also this problem is very much prevalent. There is an overt and covert notion within the communist movement that gender discrimination will automatically be abolished through the abolition of class. Such notion results from the failure to realize that the movement against gender discrimination can also influence and speed up class struggle and in that sense it is a part of class struggle too. These types of mechanical attitude are very much prevalent in the movement. So we have to give proper attention to comprehend the dialectical relation between base and superstructure.

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.