Although Marx himself only mentioned the “base” and “superstructure” in (by my count) two of his works, the base-superstructure “problem” remains a source of serious contention for Marxists, our sympathizers, and our critics. Despite its outsized role in Marxist debates, the model can, when contextualized and understood in its nuances, be quite useful for analyzing capitalist society and organizing for socialism.
Marx explicitly introduces the distinction between the base and superstructure in the preface to his 1859 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In the preface, Marx builds on his previous work with Engels, The German Ideology, writing:
In the social production of their existence, humans 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.
The base of society—which is also translated as “infrastructure”—includes the relations of production and the productive forces. Productive forces name labor-power, instruments or tools used by workers, and the materials workers transform in the production process. The relations of production entail the social organization of production and reproduction, or how the re/production of life is structured. It’s important to emphasize that the base isn’t just the forces of production but production relations, which are not only economic but social.
The superstructure comprises the political-legal system of the state and consciousness—or ideology—in general, which manifests in culture and art, religion and spirituality, ethics and philosophy, etc. The superstructure emerges from the totality of the relations of production. Political activity and intellectual processes and products are conditioned by the mode of production (the relations and forces of production). And as we’ll see below, elements of the superstructure in turn impact the base.
According to Engels, he and Marx laid so much emphasis on the importance of the base because of their historical and material context, because they were responding to those who denied the importance of production. In an 1890 letter to the German socialist Joseph Bloch in which Engels clarifies their model, he notes that “we had to emphasize the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it”. Earlier in the letter, he writes that “the ultimately determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of real life,” and that “if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase”.
Engels infers that Bloch’s questions come from his study of secondary literature only, and he asks Bloch to read the primary sources, referring him in particular to Marx’s 1852 book, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, perhaps the only other place Marx mentioned the superstructure explicitly (although he alludes to it elsewhere). In this earlier work, Marx formulates the superstructure like this:
Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought, and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding relations.
Classes, that is, collectives defined by their location in the totality of social production, produce ways of feeling, thinking, and understanding life.
The context and relations of the base and superstructure
That the model isn’t a mechanical formula—in which the base unidirectionally produces the superstructure—is evident when we consider the context in which it appears.
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy was the product of Marx’s ongoing work on Capital. What were some of Marx’s main critiques of political economy? First, it took appearances for granted and didn’t ask about the underlying structures that generated such appearances. Second, it viewed political economy and the world as a series of independent objects and subjects, when they were interconnected and interrelated parts of a unity or totality that was in constant motion. Third, and as a result of the first two critiques, it didn’t take a historical-materialist approach to understanding these transformations, projecting present categories back into the past and the future, so that capitalism as a social system was figured as eternal.
Those who take the base as independent and static thus side with Marx’s bourgeois adversaries. It’s not an economistic formula in which changes in the economy automatically and predictably lead to changes in society. The base-superstructure is a “spatial metaphor” that serves descriptive purposes. While it can lend itself to a reading whereby what happens below determines what happens on top, if read as a Marxist model it’s helpful for understanding and analyzing the dynamics of the class struggle.
This is why Marx used the superstructure in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: to “distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality”. He goes on to partially locate the failure of the 1848 Paris revolution and the success of the 1851 coup of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in the emergence of social-democracy, which
is epitomized in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony. However different the means proposed for the attainment of this end may be, however much it may be trimmed with more or less revolutionary notions, the content remains the same.
The social-democratic forces, while using revolutionary phrasings, didn’t seek to overthrow the existing relations of production but to manage them in a more equitable manner through the capitalist political and legal superstructure.
Marxism and the base-superstructure model
Given the above, it’s clear that the model is dialectical. As a historical-materialist, Marx understood that the base and superstructure of society change over time and are context-dependent. Neither the base nor superstructure, nor the relationship between the two, are unified, static, or ahistorical.
The relations of production in U.S. capitalism are neither unified nor even strictly economic in the sense that they’re structured and divided by race, nationality, gender, dis/ability, sexuality, and other hierarchies. Engels affirms that the relations of production are social (and racial) in an 1894 letter to the German anarchist Walther Borgius. Responding to Borgius’ request for clarification on the role of the base, Engels acknowledges that “economic conditions… ultimately determine historical development. But race itself is an economic factor”. Clearly race is part of the base, yet it’s obviously superstructural as well, in that 1) race is a historically constructed and evolving category and 2) it’s maintained and ordered not just by economic forces and relations but by elements like culture, the media, and the legal system.
In fact, Engels soon after says that “political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base”. The boundaries between the base and superstructure are not static or fixed, and superstructural elements in society work to reproduce elements of the base.
Capitalism requires, for example, the legal system of the state to enforce private property rights. In this instance, it’s crucial to the reproduction of the base. Because the capitalist legal system arises from capitalist relations of production, changes in the legal system might alter the existing relations of production, but they can’t fundamentally overthrow them, for that requires the creation of a new social and economic system.
Although Marx didn’t spend much time studying the political economy of cultural activity, another example of the dynamism of the model appears in his argument that artists and other cultural workers are productive agents. He distinguishes those who produce surplus value from those who don’t, although both can be forms of wage-labor (for example, working for the state doesn’t produce surplus value but is a form of labor-power sold to another). Marx conceptualizes intellectual work, dancing, writing, singing, and other “artistic” or “cultural” actions, when performed through the commodity of labor power, as forms of wage labor. Such forms of work can thus be viewed through the prism of the base or superstructure.
All of this highlights that the base and superstructure is a metaphor and model for Marxists, a way to analyze and approach society and social transformation rather than an easy explanation.
Smart phones: An example
To get a better handle on the relationship between material production and ideas or mental conceptions, think about the proliferation of “smart phones.” When, in order to e-mail, we used to have to sit at a computer and connect via cables to the internet, we had a different idea of time and communication than we do now that many of us can e-mail wherever and whenever. A 2021 Pew Research Poll found that 85 percent of people overall (and 73 percent of people earning less than $30,000 annually) in the U.S. have smart phones, so this isn’t a minor phenomenon.
The technology makes it possible for your boss to require you to respond to e-mails (e.g., to work) at night. It blurs the distinction between work and life, let alone between work and leisure. How many of us respond to work e-mails on vacation? The smart phone makes it possible for me to ask you a minor question or a series of them throughout the day, rather than wait and type one single e-mail. We begin to think of time differently, and we begin to relate to each other differently. When I was a student, for example, it was normal for teachers to respond to e-mails within a few days. Now the expectation is that teachers respond within hours.
Even our feelings and bodies change. Have you ever felt your phone vibrate in your pocket only to realize it didn’t? This is called “phantom vibration syndrome.” A 2011 study of 290 undergraduate students found that around “89% of the sample had experienced phantom vibrations, and 40% experienced these vibrations at least once a week”. Yet the smart phone didn’t arise spontaneously, it wasn’t dropped from the heavens. Workers conceived of it, designed it, produced it, and made it all possible. It’s a productive material force that changes our forms of consciousness, ways of feeling, senses of time, and more. Yet the reason smart phones were produced and subsequently distributed throughout society is because they increase the productivity of labor. The same object that, when used for work, enters into the base, when used for non-work purposes, enters into the superstructure.
Utilizing the model for the revolutionary movement
The socialist revolution can’t come without changing the base of society, as it entails transforming private ownership into collective ownership, abolishing capitalist relations and constructing socialist relations. But the superstructure reacts on the base and informs it. There’s a dynamic interplay between the two, and the question is not so much what is located in which part of the model as what is the most strategically significant for advancing the class struggle in a particular setting? The abolition of wage labor—the socialist revolution—has to focus on the superstructure and the base and understand their composition, contradictions, and potentials.
In the chapter on the working day in Capital, Marx describes the decades-long struggle for a “normal” working day. He quotes horrific details about the abuses of industrial capitalism on workers from factory inspectors. At the end of the chapter he declares that “the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death.” In other words, the tactical objective is to establish “a legally limited working-day”.
This is a clarion call for a change in the superstructure, for a legal reform. It’s a significant fight to reduce the working day, not only to protect workers from the abuses of bosses but also to give workers more time to organize. At the same time, it impacts the base of society as well, because given a limited working day, capital has to pursue other avenues to accumulate extra surplus value. In fact, it’s with these limitations that capital turns to the production of relative surplus value, which is when capitalism as a mode of production properly comes into being.
Another example is Marx’s critique of Alfred Darimon, a follower of Proudhon, who wanted to introduce a “socialist form” of money that would represent the actual time that workers labored. While Marx acknowledged that “one form [of money] may remedy evils against which another is powerless… as long as they remain forms of money” they’ll reproduce these evils elsewhere in the same way that “one form of wage labour may correct the abuses of another, but no form of wage labour can correct the abuse of wage labour itself”. Capitalism can’t be overthrown without changing the relations of production.
Revolutions require objective and subjective conditions. Without changes in mass consciousness—which are superstructural but relate to and impact the base—no crisis of capitalism will lead to a new mode of production. A crisis in the capitalist system can, in turn, help change that consciousness, but is not in itself sufficient. Neither can be viewed or approached in isolation, and have to be approached as interacting within the shifting totality of capitalist society. In response to these approaches, our tactics and strategies change.
- ↩ Thanks to Jon Greenway for feedback on an earlier draft of this article.
- ↩ Marx, Karl. (1859/1970). A contribution to the critique of political economy (New York: International Publishers), 20-21.
- ↩ Engels, Friedrich. (1890/1965). “Engels to Joseph Bloch.” In Marx-Engels selected correspondence (New York: Progress Publishers), 396.
- ↩ Ibid., 394, 396.
- ↩  Marx, Karl. (1852/1972). The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte(New York: International Publishers), 47.
- ↩ Althusser, Louis. (1995/2014). On the reproduction of capitalism: Ideology and ideological state apparatuses, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York: Verso), 54.
- ↩ Marx, The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 47.
- ↩ Ibid., 50.
- ↩ Engels, Friedrich. (1894/1965). “Engels to W. Borgius in Breslau.” In Marx-Engels selected correspondence (New York: Progress Publishers), 441.
- ↩ Ibid., 441-442.
- ↩ Marx, Karl. (1939/1990). “Appendix: Results of the immediate process of production.” In Karl Marx, Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1), trans. B. Fowkes (New York: Penguin), 1044.
- ↩ Pew Research Center. (2021). “Mobile fact sheet.” Pew Research center, April 7 Available here.
- ↩ Drouin, Michelle, Daren H. Kaiser, and Daniel A. Miller. (2012). “Phantom vibrations among undergraduates: Prevalence and associated psychological characteristics.” Computers in Human Behavior 28, no. 4: 1493.
- ↩ Marx, Karl. (1867/1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1): A critical analysis of capitalist production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers), 285, 286.
- ↩ See Majidi, Mazda. (2021). “Relative surplus value: The class struggle intensifies.” Liberation School, 18 August. Available here.
- ↩ Marx, Karl. (1939/1973). Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy (rough draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin), 123.