Base & Superstructure

Notes, 2005

Karl Marx’s wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“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.

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

The superstructure is the manifestation of elaborate social relations, the surface, the face of the core, or the face of the base social relations, the forces and relations of production. The base give rise to the superstructure, this does not mean that the base dictates the superstructure of society, but that the superstructure does not exist without the base.

The base is composed of the direct relations within society, forces and relations of productions, meaning social relations. The totality of social relations once digested by the mass or general consciousness of society manifests the superstructure. This means that the composition of the superstructure is not always consistent with the composition of the base, for example social relations under capitalism are composed of class division, but that does not mean the superstructure is always dominated by class politics, but class politics cannot appear to the superstructure without having a class base of society.

This is exactly the relation between freedom and constraint. The formation of the superstructure can also be directly contradictory with the base, and this is basically the heart of Marx’s dialectics, since the superstructure is mainly dominated by the ruling class, so when the ruling class goes through political and economic paths which directly contradicts with the compositions of the base and its material and historical development at that stage, at that point the contradictions within the existing social relations (base) appears to the surface, such points can be considered revolutionary moments, where the material conditions of a certain society within a certain historical period have matured enough to be able to produce a revolution.

However, such revolution will not develop if there is no revolutionary organisation that is pushing forward for it. So a revolutionary party cannot perform a revolution, it is accomplished by the mass of the working class, within circumstances or conditions transmitted from the past. Nobody has ever explained this better than Marx himself in a famous passage in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’

The role of a revolutionary organisation is to build itself and to build the working class, that is building a movement that is ready when the conditions of a socialist revolution are mature; this means that such a movement needs to build a developed class consciousness which enables the working class to lead a socialist revolution.

 

‘The role of a revolutionary organisation is to build itself and to build the working class, that is building a movement that is ready when the conditions of a socialist revolution are mature; this means that such a movement needs to build a developed class consciousness which enables the working class to lead a socialist revolution.’