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Diagram explaining the relationship between the base and the superstructure in Marxist theory

In Marxist theory, society consists of two parts: the base (or substructure) and superstructure. The base refers to tát the mode of production which includes the forces and relations of production (e.g. employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations) into which people enter to tát produce the necessities and amenities of life. The superstructure refers to tát society's other relationships and ideas not directly relating to tát production including its culture, institutions, roles, rituals, religion, truyền thông, and state. The relation of the two parts is not strictly unidirectional. The superstructure can affect the base. However, the influence of the base is predominant.[1]

Model and qualification[edit]

In developing Alexis de Tocqueville's observations, Marx identified civil society as the economic base and political society as the political superstructure.[2] Marx postulated the essentials of the base–superstructure concept in his preface to tát A Contribution to tát the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to tát 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 tát 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 tát the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to tát distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, ví one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.[3]

Marx's "base determines superstructure" axiom, however, requires qualification:

  1. the base is the whole of productive relationships, not only a given economic element, e.g. the working class
  2. historically, the superstructure varies and develops unevenly in society's different activities; for example, art, politics, economics, etc.
  3. the base–superstructure relationship is reciprocal; Engels explains that the base determines the superstructure only in the last instance.[4]

Applications and revisions[edit]

Marx's theory of base and superstructure can be found in the disciplines of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology as utilized by Marxist scholars. Across these disciplines the base-superstructure relationship, and the contents of each, may take different forms.

Max Weber[edit]

Early sociologist Max Weber preferred a sườn of structuralism over a base and superstructure model of society in which he proposes that the base and superstructure are reciprocal in causality—neither economic rationality nor normative ideas rule the tên miền of society. In summarizing results from his East Elbia research he notes that, contrary to tát the base and superstructure model "we have become used to tát," there exists a reciprocal relationship between the two.[5]

Antonio Gramsci[edit]

The Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci divided Marx's superstructure into two elements: political society and civil society. Political society consists of the organized force of society (such as the police and military) while civil society refers to tát the consensus-creating elements that contribute to tát cultural hegemony (such as the truyền thông and education system.) Both constituents of this superstructure are still informed by the values of the base, serving to tát establish and enforce these values in society.[6]

Walter Rodney[edit]

Walter Rodney, the Guyanese political activist and African historian, discussed the role of Marx's superstructure in the context of development cycles and colonialism. Rodney states that while most countries follow a developmental structure that evolves from feudalism to tát capitalism, Trung Quốc is an exception to tát this rule and skipped the capitalism step:[7]

The explanation is very complex, but in general terms the main differences between feudal Europe and feudal Trung Quốc lắc in the superstructure – i.e. in the toàn thân of beliefs, motivations and sociopolitical institutions which derived from the material base but in turn affected it. In Trung Quốc, religious, educational and bureaucratic qualifications were of utmost importance, and government was in the hands of state officials rather than vãn being lập cập by the landlords on their own feudal estates.[8]

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By extension this means that the Marxist development cycle is malleable due to tát cultural superstructures, and is not an inevitable path. Rather the role of the superstructure allows for adaptation of the development cycle, especially in a colonial context.[9]

Freudo-Marxism and sex-economy[edit]

Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich's discipline of analysis known as sex economy is an attempt to tát understand the divergence of the perceived base and superstructure that occurred during the global economic crisis from 1929 to tát 1933.[10] To make sense of this phenomenon, Reich recategorized social ideology as an element in the base—not the superstructure. In this new categorization, social ideology and social psychology is a material process that self-perpetuates, the same way economic systems in the base perpetuate themselves. Reich focused on the role of sexual repression in the patriarchal family system as a way to tát understand how mass tư vấn for Fascism could arise in a society.[11]

Critical theory[edit]

Contemporary Marxist interpretations such as those of critical theory reject this interpretation of the base–superstructure interaction and examine how each affects and conditions the other. Raymond Williams, for example, argues against loose, "popular" usage of base and superstructure as discrete entities which, he explains, is not the intention of Marx and Engels:

So, we have to tát say that when we talk of 'the base', we are talking of a process, and not a state .... We have to tát revalue 'superstructure' towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced, or specifically-dependent nội dung. And, crucially, we have to tát revalue 'the base' away from [the] notion[s] of [either] a fixed economic or [a] technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real, social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations, and, therefore, always in a state of dynamic process.[12]

Can the base be separated from the superstructure?[edit]

John Plamenatz makes two counterclaims regarding the clear-cut separation of the base and superstructure. The first is that economic structure is independent from production in many cases, with relations of production or property also having a strong effect on production.[13] The second claim is that relations of production can only be defined with normative terms—this implies that social life and humanity's morality cannot be truly separated as both are defined in a normative sense.[14]

The legality question[edit]

A criticism[weasel words] of the base and superstructure theory is that property relations (supposedly part of the base and the driving force of history) are actually defined by legal relations, an element of the superstructure. Defenders of the theory claim that Marx believed in property relations and social relations of production as two separate entities.[15]

Neoliberalism and the state[edit]

Colin Jenkins provides (2014) a critique on the role of the capitalist state in the era of neoliberalism, using base and superstructure theory as well as the work of Nicos Poulantzas. Regarding developments in the United States during this era (roughly 1980–2015), Jenkins highlights the nature in which political parties and the political system itself are inherently designed to tát protect the economic base of capitalism and, in doing ví, have become "increasingly centralized, coordinated, and synchronized over the past half-century." This, according to tát Jenkins, has led to tát a "corporate-fascistic state of being" that is challenging the equilibrium of this fragile relationship. His analysis specifically addresses the role of both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, in the United States:

It reminds us of John Dewey's claim that, 'As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.' In the US, the two-party political system has proven extremely effective in this regard. Aside from differences on social issues lượt thích abortion and gay marriage, as well as socioeconomic issues lượt thích unemployment insurance and public assistance, both parties ultimately embrace capitalist/corporatist interests in that they both serve as facilitators for the dominant classes: The Republican Party in its role as forerunner, pushing the limits of the capitalist model to tát the brink of fascism; and the Democratic Party in its role as governor, providing intermittent degrees of slack and pull against this inevitable move towards a 'corporate-fascistic state of being.[16]


Neven Sesardic agrees that the economic base of society affects its superstructure, however he questions how meaningful this actually is. While the original claim of a strong sườn of economic determinism was radical, Sesardic argues that it was watered down to tát the trivial claim that the base affects the superstructure and vice versa, something no philosopher would dispute. Thus Sesardic argues that Marx's claim ultimately amounts to tát nothing more than vãn a trivial observation that does not make meaningful statements or explain anything about the real world.[17][18]: 175–177 

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See also[edit]

  • Althusser
  • Classical Marxism
  • Criticism of Marxism
  • Critique of political economy
  • Cultural hegemony
  • Dialectical materialism
  • Economic determinism
  • False consciousness
  • Historical materialism
  • Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses
  • Materialism
  • Organic crisis
  • Reification
  • Social change
  • Social structure


  1. ^ Engels's letter to tát J. Bloch; from London to Königsberg, written on September 21, 1890. Historical Materialism (Marx, Engels, Lenin), p. 294 - 296. Published by Progress Publishers, 1972; first published by Der sozialistische Akademiker, Berlin, October 1, 1895. Translated from German. Online version: 1999. Transcription/Markup: Brian Baggins. Retrieved December 16, 2017.
  2. ^ Zaleski, Pawel (2008). "Tocqueville on Civilian Society. A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality". Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte. Felix Meiner Verlag. 50.
  3. ^ Marx, Karl (1977). A Contribution to tát the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Notes by R. Rojas
  4. ^ Dictionary of the Social Sciences, "Base and superstructure" entry.
  5. ^ Scaff, Lawrence A. (June 1984). "Weber before Weberian Sociology". The British Journal of Sociology. 35 (2): 190–215. doi:10.2307/590232. JSTOR 590232.
  6. ^ Morera, Esteve (March 1990). "Gramsci and Democracy". Canadian Journal of Political Science. 23 (1): 28, 29.
  7. ^ Campbell, Trevor A. (1981). "The Making of an Organic Intellectual: Walter Rodney (1942-1980)". Latin American Perspectives. 8 (1): 49–63. doi:10.1177/0094582X8100800105. JSTOR 2633130. S2CID 145790333.
  8. ^ Walter, Rodney (2011). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Strickland, William, 1937-, Hill, Robert A., 1943-, Harding, Vincent,, Babu, Abdul Rahman Mohamed (Revised paperback ed.). Baltimore, Maryland. ISBN 9781574780482. OCLC 773301411.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  9. ^ Walter, Rodney (2011). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Strickland, William, 1937-, Hill, Robert A., 1943-, Harding, Vincent,, Babu, Abdul Rahman Mohamed (Revised paperback ed.). Baltimore, Maryland. ISBN 9781574780482. OCLC 773301411.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  10. ^ Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Albion, 1970. 22–23. Print.
  11. ^ Reich, Wilhelm (1970). The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Albion. p. 14.
  12. ^ Williams, Raymond (November–December 1973). "Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory". New Left Review. I (82).
  13. ^ Lukes, Steven (1983). Miller, David; Siedentop, Larry (eds.). The Nature of Political Theory. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press. p. 104.
  14. ^ Lukes, Steven (1983). Miller, David; Siedentop, Larry (eds.). The Nature of Political Theory. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press. p. 105.
  15. ^ Cahan, Jean Axelrad (Winter 1994–1995). "The Concept of Property in Marx's Theory of History: A Defense of the Autonomy of the Socioeconomic Base". Science & Society. 58 (4): 394–395. JSTOR 40403448.
  16. ^ Jenkins, Colin (2 February 2014). "Calibrating the Capitalist State in the Neoliberal Era: Equilibrium, Superstructure, and the Pull Towards a Corporate-Fascistic Model". The Hampton Institute. Archived from the original on 29 August 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2014.
  17. ^ Sesardić, Neven (1985). Marxian Utopia. Centre for Research into Communist Economies. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0948027010.
  18. ^ Blanshard, Brand (1966). "Reflections on economic determinism". The Journal of Philosophy. 63 (7): 169–178. doi:10.2307/2023949. JSTOR 2023949.

Further reading[edit]

  • Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Étienne. Reading Capital. London: Verso, 2009.
  • Bottomore, Tom (ed). A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 2nd ed. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1991. 45–48.
  • Calhoun, Craig (ed), Dictionary of the Social Sciences Oxford University Press (2002)
  • Hall, Stuart. "Rethinking the Base and Superstructure Metaphor." Papers on Class, Hegemony and Party. Bloomfield, J., ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977.
  • Chris Harman. "Base and Superstructure". International Socialism 2:32, Summer 1986, pp. 3–44.
  • Harvey, David. A Companion to tát Marx's Capital. London: Verso, 2010.
  • Larrain, Jorge. Marxism and Ideology. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1983.
  • Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1972.
  • Postone, Moishe. Time, Labour, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

External links[edit]

  • Marxist Media Theory