Monday, 23 February 2009

Base and superstructure

The Marxist theory of history explains the fundamental relationship between material conditions and ideas through the concept of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. The most important passage on this can be found in Marx’s preface to 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.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to 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, so 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.[1]

We could cite a number of passages from other works that reinforce the point. For example, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx writes:

[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living.[2]

For Marx, the most important conditioning elements in a society are the relationships through which it produces and distributes its wealth. The emphasis upon relationships is important. You cannot tell from a person’s DNA whether he or she is a serf, a vagrant, a capitalist, a proletarian — such status is not innate to them, but depends upon their position within the social relations of their time. These fundamental relationships include the prevailing mode of production and the class basis of a society.

During the Middle Ages, the dominant social relationship was that of a peasant to a lord. After several centuries, a new mode of production arose within feudal society based upon the relationship between a wage labourer and a capitalist. This relationship was based upon a different mode of production and therefore had a different character. Where the feudal serf was the vassal of his or her lord, and owed them service and a share of the products of their labour, the wage labourer has no means of sustaining themselves other than the sale of their labour to a capitalist.

Upon this economic ‘base’ arises a complex ‘superstructure’. This is composed of state structures of law, institutions and political organisation which reflect the dominant social relationships; it also comprises an immense range of conventions and ideas, such as politics, philosophy, morality, and (most importantly for this blog) art. In class society, these are largely, though not exclusively, defined by the ruling class, to justify and maintain the unequal social relationships upon which their privileges depend. The ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ of the superstructure are known to Marxism as ideology.

The forms this takes in actual societies is always concrete, always precise:

The fact is, therefore, that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations. Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production.[3]

Through history, modes of production and their corresponding social structures change, and therefore art too, as part of the superstructure, changes its forms and meaning.

As an example we may take the Puritan Christianity that arose in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This new religious form was an expression of the interests of the rising bourgeoisie, which required a church institution that was under its own control. Puritanism conformed more closely to bourgeois individualism, with its emphasis upon a personal relationship with God, and its severity and simplicity represented in part the bourgeoisie’s need to accumulate starting capital. Puritan policy towards the arts was to ban theatrical performances, the use of music in church, and ‘idolatrous’ imagery. All of these characteristics of Puritanism, indeed its very existence as an ideology, are ultimately based upon its relationship to the bourgeois mode of production in the particular conditions of pre-Revolutionary England.


Art then is part of the superstructure of society, influenced by the mode of production. But no work of art exists in glorious isolation — it is also influenced by other things, such as other parts of the superstructure. Trying to trace every causal thread that links a work of art through the law, philosophy, religion, aesthetics and so on would be impossible, but criticism must try to see art as a totality — causality in art, as in everything, is not a straightforward linear process but a sum of processes, some of which are in contradiction. As Marx put it, “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.”[4]

Our own history as a species illustrates this very well. Humans evolved because of the rise of the mammals made possible by the great extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago; this extinction followed the crashing of a huge asteroid into the earth at what is now the Yucatán peninsula; this asteroid was probably influenced by the tremendous gravitational pull of Jupiter, half a billion miles from Earth, which nudges cosmic objects towards us. Thus the very existence of human beings is part of an immense, complex system of interlinked cosmic processes — like the Earth itself, the ‘Goldilocks’ planet where everything is ‘just right’ for life to prosper, we are one tiny, fortunate accident.

So art too is complex. It is partly a product of the psychology of its creators, but it is also a product of a dominant ‘way of seeing’, in John Berger’s phrase, which is conditioned by the most profound structures of society.

Students of art may wonder why they are being asked to understand politics and economics, and what all this has to do with art. Terry Eagleton provides a succinct answer:

To understand King Lear, The Dunciad or Ulysses is therefore to do more than interpret their symbolism, study their literary history and add footnotes about sociological facts which enter into them. It is first of all to understand the complex indirect relations between those works and the ideological worlds they inhabit — relations which emerge not just in ‘themes’ and ‘preoccupations’, but in style, rhythm, image, quality and... form. But we do not understand ideology either unless we grasp the part it plays in the society as a whole — how it consists of a definite, historically relative structure of perception which underpins the power of a particular social class. This is not an easy task, since an ideology is never a simple reflection of a ruling class’s ideas; on the contrary, it is always a complex phenomenon, which may incorporate conflicting, even contradictory, views of the world. To understand an ideology, we must analyse the precise relations between different classes in a society; and to do that means grasping where those classes stand in relation to the mode of production.[5]

Many basic questions of art history simply cannot be answered any other way. For example, the reason there has been such a rapid succession of art movements from the nineteenth century onwards, when art in societies like ancient Egypt could persist unchanged for 3000 years, is the dynamic rate of change introduced by capitalist forces of production. This quantity and quality of change has produced a historically unprecedented degree of alienation amongst artists, who need to constantly reinvent what art ‘is’ in order to escape recuperation of their work (a topic we shall examine in detail at a later stage).

This is why we need to understand base and superstructure — politics and economics are, inescapably, an essential part of understanding any work of art.

[1] Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1856).
[2] Marx, Chapter 1 of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). This pamphlet was Marx’s brilliant analysis of the rise to power of Napoleon III in France.
[3] Marx and Engels, from Vol 1, Part I of The German Ideology (1845–6).
[4] Marx, ‘The Method of Political Economy’ from Grundrisse.
[5] Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976). Eagleton is Britain’s most important Marxist critic.

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