Base and Superstructure
Mechanical materialism and its aftermath
The answers given to these questions lead to very different views about how society develops.
At the one extreme there is the view that the base is the forces of production that they inevitably advance and that this in turn leads to changes in society.
Political and ideological struggle is then seen as playing no real role. Human beings are products of their circumstances and history proceeds completely independently of their will. The outcome of wars revolutions philosophical arguments or what-not is always determined in advance. It would have made not one iota of difference to history if Robespierre had walked under a carriage in 1788 or if the sealed train had crashed in April 1917.
This view of Marxism is based upon a certain reading of Marx himself in particular upon a powerful polemical passage in The Poverty of Philosophy:
‘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 handmill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill society with an industrial capitalist.’
It is in the years after Marx’s death that such a mechanical determinist view of history comes to be regarded as ‘Marxist’ orthodoxy. It was during this period that Marxism came to hegemonise the German workers’ movement and through it the Second International. But it was Marxism as seen through the eyes of Karl Kautsky the ‘Pope of Marxism’.
For Kautsky 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’. Revolutionary movements could not alter this pattern of development. Thus the Hussites of the 15th century and the revolutionary Anabaptists of the 16th century had been able to fight courageously and to present the vision of a new society; but for Kautsky they could not alter the inevitable development of history:
‘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.
Violent revolutionary struggles can never determine the direction of social development they can only in certain circumstances accelerate their pace…’
The task of revolutionary socialists under modem capitalism was not to try to cut short the historical process but simply to reflect its development by carefully building up socialist organisation until capitalism was ready to turn into socialism. But at the same time counter-revolutionaries could not stop the onward march of the forces of production and therefore of historical evolution. Kautsky insisted that ‘regression’ from more advanced to more backward forces of production never occurred. ‘Economic development’ said his most influential work his introduction to the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt Programme ‘will lead inevitably to the… conquest of the government in the interests of the [working] class’.
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. ‘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’.
He provides a ‘formula’ which sets out a hierarchy of causation in history. The ‘state of the productive forces’ determines the ‘economic relations’ of society. A ‘socio-political system’ then develops on this ‘economic basis’. ‘The mentality of men living in society [is] determined in part directly by the economic conditions obtaining and in part by the entire socio-political system that has arisen on that foundation.’ Finally the ‘various ideologies … reflect the properties of that mentality’.
He would assert that ‘history is made by men’ but then go on to insist that ‘the average axis of mankind’s intellectual development’ runs ‘parallel to that of its economic development’ so that in the end all that really matters is the economic development.
The outcome of great historical events like the French Revolution did not depend at all on the role played by individuals like Mirabeau or Robespierre:
‘No matter what the qualities of a given individual may be they cannot eliminate the given economic relations if the latter conform to the given state of the productive forces.
Talented people can change only individual features of events not their general trend.’
Just as Kautsky’s interpretation of Marxism dominated in the parties of the Second International Plekhanov’s was taken up as the orthodoxy by the Stalinist parties from the late 1920s onwards. In the hands of Stalin and his ‘theoreticians’ it became an unbendable historical law: development of the forces of production inevitably led to corresponding changes in society so the growth of industry in Russia would inevitably lead from a ‘workers’ state’ to ‘socialism’ and from ‘socialism’ to ‘communism’ regardless of the misery and hardship involved; by contrast the clearest indication that Western capitalism had outlived its lifespan was the decline in its forces of production.
The reaction against determinism
Stalinist Marxism did not long outlast Stalin himself. The ‘new left’ of the late 1950s and the Maoist left of the mid-1960s both launched assaults on the crude mechanical determinist account of history.
They insisted rightly that in Marx’s own historical writings – the Class Struggles in France The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte The Civil War in France – there is not a hint of a passive fatalistic approach to historical change. They also laid great emphasis on certain remarks Engels had made in a series of letters he wrote at the very end of his life in the 1890s criticising an over-crude use of historical materialism. Engels had written to Starkenburg:
‘Political juridical philosophical religious literary artistic etc development is based on economic development. But these all react on one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is cause solely active while everything else is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity which ultimately always asserts itself.’
And to Bloch:
‘According to the materialist conception of history the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than that 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 victorious classes after a successful battle etc juridical forms and even the reflexes of 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 the economic element finally asserts itself as necessary.’
The post-1956 new left went on to argue that even the terms ‘base and superstructure’ were simply a metaphor not to be taken too seriously. The ‘reciprocal’ influence of the superstructure on the base meant that ‘determination’ was not to be seen as a strict causal relationship.
The Maoist left did not begin with such an explicit break with the past. The doyen of this school Louis Althusser was quite willing in his early 1960s writings to quote Stalin himself favourably.
But the Althusserians created a new theoretical structure which destroyed most of the content of the old notions of ‘base’ ‘superstructure’ and ‘determination’. Society consisted of a number of different structures – the political the economic the ideological the linguistic – each developing at its own speed and having an impact on the others. At any particular point in history it could be any one of them that dominated the others. It was only ‘in the last instance’ that the economic was ‘determinant’.
The new left and the Maoist-Althusserian schools were initially very hostile to each other. Yet both of them redefined historical materialism in a way that opened the door to a great dose of voluntarism.
For the 1950s new left this meant moving away from any tight definition of class or any real concern with how social being might affect social consciousness. In the writings about current events by the most prominent British new left figure E P Thompson – right through from his 1960 essay ‘Revolution’ to his anti cruise missile writings of 1980 – there is the insistent message that energy and goodwill and a repudiation of tight categories can be enough in themselves to open the road to victory. In his more theoretical writings he rejects the view that ‘economic’ factors play any sort of determining role in history or even that they can be separated out from other factors such as the ideological or judicial.
Althusser’s tone is different: in his earlier writings the key to change is still a party of an essentially Stalinist sort. But there is the same element of voluntarism as in Thompson: if only the party understands the articulation of the different structures it can force the pace of history regardless of ‘economic’ factors.
Most of his followers have abandoned any notion of ‘determination’ even in ‘the last instance’ and have moved to positions that deny any possibility of understanding how societies change. So for instance one English post-Althusserian Gareth Stedman Jones now tells us that the only way to understand any ideology is in its own terms and that you must not make any attempt to interpret its development in terms of the material circumstances of those who adhere to it. We are right back to the old empiricist adage ‘Everything is what it is and nothing else.’ Such is the mouse that the elephantine structures of Althusserianism have given birth to.
The convergence of the old new left and the Althusserians has created a sort of ‘common sense’ among Marxists which holds that any talk of base and superstructure is really old hat. So widespread has the influence of this ‘common sense’ been that it has even affected people who reject completely the political conclusions of Thompson or Althusser.
The only concerted resistance to this tendency has come from admirers of the orthodox analytical philosopher G A Cohen. But his defence of Marx involves a complete retreat to the mechanical interpretation of Kautsky and Plekhanov.
The revolutionary materialist alternative
Historically however there has always been a revolutionary alternative to either mechanical materialism or voluntarism. It existed in part even in the heyday of Kautskyism in some of the writings of Engels and in the work of the Italian Marxist Labriola.
But the need for a theoretical alternative did not become more widely apparent until the years of the First World War and the Russian Revolution proved the bankruptcy of Kautskyism. It was then that Lenin reread Hegel and concluded ‘Intelligent (dialectical) idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid (metaphysical) materialism’.
In the years that followed thinkers like George Lukács Karl Korsch and Antonio Gramsci all tried to provide versions of historical materialism which did not see human activity as simply a passive reflection of other factors. And in his magnificent History of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky provided an account of a world historical event which placed massive emphasis on subjective as well as objective factors – and was criticised from a Plekhanovite point of view for doing so.
A non-mechanical non-voluntarist version of historical materialism is absolutely vital today. It can easily be found in the works of Marx himself if you supplement his classic account in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy with what he says at various points in The German Ideology The Poverty of Philosophy The Communist Manifesto and elsewhere.
Production and society
Marx first sets out his account of historical materialism in The German Ideology of 1846.
He starts from a materialist recognition that human beings are biologically part of nature:
‘The premises from which we start are not dogmas but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are real individuals their activity and the material conditions under which they live both those which they find existing and those which they produce by their own activity.
The first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relationship to the rest of nature… The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the actions of men.
We must begin by stating the first real premise of human existence and therefore of all human history the premise that men must be able to live in order to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking a habitation clothing and many other things. .
[This is] a fundamental condition of all human history which today as thousands of years ago must be daily and hourly fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.’
So there is a core activity at any point in history which is a precondition for everything else which happens. This is the activity of work on the material world in order to get food shelter and clothing.
The character of this activity depends upon the concrete material situation in which human beings find themselves.
This determines the content of the most basic forms of human action. And so it also determines what individuals themselves are like.
‘The mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction 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.