Readings for Week Two: Base and Superstructure

The metaphor of "base" and "superstructure," is used by Marx in his argument that the economic relations of production in a society determine the forms of the state and social conciousness, or, more broadly, all social and ideological structures, such as law, politics, religion, education, art, etc. This is one of the most important parts of Marxist theory for literary and cultural studies, especially as it relates to the theory of ideology and the role of art in the production of ideology. Following 2nd International theorists Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky traditional Marxists interpreted "base" to mean "material reality" and "superstructure" to mean something like "social and intellectual phenomena" and interpreted Marx's argument to mean that there is a relationship of straightforward mechanical causality between the base and superstructure. According to this argument, a feudal economic order will inevitably produce the particular forms of government, law, art, religion, etc., characteristic of the middle ages, while a capitalist economic order will produce those of modernity. But this straightforwardly mechanistic understanding of the relationship between base and superstructure is seen as too simplistic by most contemporary Marxist critics, and Marx himself provides various more complex statements on the problem.






An early articulation of the base/superstructure relationship is found in Marx's and Engel's critique of the idealism of contemporary German philosophy in the The German Ideology, written in the mid-1840's:

Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality, and inwardly must organise itself as State. The word "civil society" [bürgerliche Gesellschaft] emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relationships had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communal society. Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organisation evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all ages forms the basis of the State and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name. (The German Ideology, Preface)

But the classic statement of the notion is found in the following passage from Marx:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

In response to a criticism that in the ancient world and the middle ages politics or catholicism, rather than an economic mode of prodution, was the determining factor in social life, Marx observes that "the middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics," adding that "it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics and there Catholicism played the chief part." (Capital I, Ch. 1, n. 34). This remark has been taken to indicate a more nuanced understanding of the relationship--Althusser invokes it as the basis between "determination" and "dominance" in which superstructural phenomena have a "relative autonomy" from the base, although they are still determined by the base in the last instance. In Althusser's essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," one might see suggestions of an even greater importance for the superstructural phenomenon of ideology, in that Althusser demonstrates that ideology has a kind of "material" effectivity.

The relationship of base and superstructure and the question of ideology are of key importance for a Marxist literary theory. Marx doesn't address the production of literature in detail, though in a famous passage from the Grundrisse (reprinted in Marxist Literary Theory, pp. 34-5) he briefly considers why classical Greek art remains popular even in modern society. He doesn't come up with a satisfactory answer, though poststructural theorists have done so--it's merely that in fact a play by Sophocles isn't the same play (in terms of its conditions of re-production) in the twentieth century, that it was in ancient Greece. We'll be returning to this question in coming weeks.