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 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 produce the necessities and amenities of life. The superstructure refers to society's other relationships and ideas not directly relating to production including its culture, institutions, roles, rituals, religion, media, 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

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 A Contribution to 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 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.[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

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.

Among Marxists, the very concept of 'base and superstructure' is contentious. The historian E. P. Thompson argue that:

Meanwhile in serious intellectual circles the argument about basis/superstructure goes on and on and on... A whole continent of discourse is being developed, with its metropolitan centres & its villas in the mountains, which rests, not upon the solid globe of historical evidence, but on the precarious point of a strained metaphor.[5]

Ellen Meiksins Wood says: 'The base/superstructure metaphor has always been more trouble than it is worth',[6] while Terry Eagleton describes base and superstructure as 'this now universally reviled paradigm'.[7] However, other Marxists continue to insist on the paradigm's importance. For example, in Paul Thomas' words:

Without Marx's juxtaposition of base to superstructure we would probably not be speaking of social contradictions at all but would instead be discussing science, technology, production, labor, the economy, & the state along lines very different from those that are commonplace today.[8]

Similarly, from Chris Harman:

Far from ignoring the impact of the 'superstructure' on the 'base', as many ignorant critics have claimed for more than a century, Marx builds his whole account of human history around it.[9]

Or again, from Stuart Hall (cultural theorist):

Of the many problems which perforce Marx left in an 'undeveloped' state, none is more crucial than that of 'base & superstructure'.[10]

Max Weber

Early sociologist Max Weber preferred a form 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 domain of society. In summarizing results from his East Elbia research he notes that, contrary to the base and superstructure model "we have become used to," there exists a reciprocal relationship between the two.[11]

Antonio Gramsci

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 the consensus-creating elements that contribute to cultural hegemony (such as the media and education system.) Both constituents of this superstructure are still informed by the values of the base, serving to establish and enforce these values in society.[12]

Walter Rodney

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 capitalism, China is an exception to this rule and skipped the capitalism step:[13]

The explanation is very complex, but in general terms the main differences between feudal Europe and feudal China lay in the superstructure – i.e. in the body of beliefs, motivations and sociopolitical institutions which derived from the material base but in turn affected it. In China, religious, educational and bureaucratic qualifications were of utmost importance, and government was in the hands of state officials rather than being run by the landlords on their own feudal estates.[14]

By extension this means that the Marxist development cycle is malleable due to 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.[15]

Freudo-Marxism and sex-economy

Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich's discipline of analysis known as sex economy is an attempt to understand the divergence of the perceived base and superstructure that occurred during the global economic crisis from 1929 to 1933.[16] 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 understand how mass support for Fascism could arise in a society.[17]

Critical theory

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 say that when we talk of 'the base', we are talking of a process, and not a state .... We have to revalue 'superstructure' towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced, or specifically-dependent content. And, crucially, we have to 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.[18]

Gilles Deleuze

Gilles Deleuze takes a skeptical stance toward Marx's categorization of ideology as a part of the superstructure. Deleuze argues that this categorization minimizes the role that desire plays in forming such systems. He prefers to view ideology as an illusion altogether. In Deleuze's own words:

One puts the infrastructure on one side– the economic, the serious– and on the other, the superstructure, of which ideology is a part, thus rejecting the phenomena of desire in ideology. It's a perfect way to ignore how desire works within the infrastructure, how it invests in it, how it takes part in it, how, in this respect, it organizes power and the repressive system. We do not say: ideology is a trompe l’oeil (or a concept that refers to certain illusions) We say: there is no ideology, it is an illusion. That's why it suits orthodox Marxism and the Communist Party so well. Marxism has put so much emphasis on the theme of ideology to better conceal what was happening in the USSR: a new organization of repressive power. There is no ideology, there are only organizations of power once it is admitted that the organization of power is the unity of desire and the economic infrastructure.[19]

R.J. Robinson

Robinson argues that Engels' original argument that superstructures are 'relatively autonomous' of their base is correct but that the detail of the argument (which is based mainly on assertion) is unconvincing. Phrases such as 'in the last instance' or 'reflection' are equally undefined.

Developing the argument that superstructures exist to deal with contradictions in the base already put forward by Antonio Gramsci, Terry Eagleton and others, he argues that it is this contradictoriness that forces superstructures to exist outside the base. However, because they exist to solve problems in the base, they affect the base, yet changes in the base (and therefore in these contradictions) still drive superstructures. Hence the 'relative' element of 'relative autonomy'.

At the same time, the fact that superstructures must solve problems that their own base evidently cannot means that they must produce the effects and results that the base cannot. So there must be at least some aspects of the forces and relations of production superstructures use that are different from the base. Therefore a superstructures 'system of production' must be in some sense different from the forces and relations present in the underlying mode of production/base. For example, legal systems are controlled by appointed authorities (judges), and not by property owners. Hence the 'autonomous' element of 'relative autonomy'.[20]

Can the base be separated from the superstructure?

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.[21]

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.[22] Robinson observes that all economic activity (and perhaps all human activity) is normative - for example, 'it is unlikely that many enter employment without a sense, unspoken or otherwise, that it is a legitimate or proper thing to do'.[23]

The legality question

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. This suggests that the distinction between base and superstructure is incoherent, and undermines the theory as a whole. Defenders of the theory claim that Marx believed in property relations and social relations of production as two separate entities.[24] G.A. Cohen offers a detailed textual analysis to argue this was based on a false interpretation of Marx's position.[25]

Robinson argues that legality does not make exploitation possible, but only defines the rules through which it is managed socially when it becomes problematic. Legal definitions of wage labour were only articulated when those workers began to show their strength. Long before that, wage labour and a working class had existed without any notion of a formal contract between legal equals. Law regarding slavery likewise concerned mainly rules for relations between slave-holders (buying and selling, warranties, etc.), and have never been required for slavery to exist. Conversely, in modern societies, domestic labour is barely addressed by law; plainly this is not because it is not prevalent, but because it is not sufficiently contentious to become a matter of significant political dispute, and therefore to require a legal form.[26]

Neoliberalism and the state

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 protect the economic base of capitalism and, in doing so, have become "increasingly centralized, coordinated, and synchronized over the past half-century." This, according to Jenkins, has led to 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 like abortion and gay marriage, as well as socioeconomic issues like 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 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.[27]


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 form of economic determinism was radical, Sesardic argues that it was watered down to 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 nothing more than a trivial observation that does not make meaningful statements or explain anything about the real world.[28][29]: 175–177 

See also


  1. ^ Engels's letter to 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: marxists.org 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. 50. Felix Meiner Verlag.
  3. ^ Marx, Karl (1977). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Notes by R. Rojas
  4. ^ Dictionary of the Social Sciences, "Base and superstructure" entry.
  5. ^ Thompson, E.P. (1978). The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays. London: Merlin. p. 330.
  6. ^ Wood, E.M. (1990: 126). 'Falling through the cracks: E.P. Thompson and the debate on base and superstructure.' In Kaye and McClelland (1990: 124-152).
  7. ^ Eagleton, Terry (2000). "Base and superstructure revisited". New Literary History. 31 (2): 231–40. doi:10.1353/nlh.2000.0018.
  8. ^ Thomas, P. (1991). 'Critical reception: Marx then and now.' In Carver (1991: 23-54), The Cambridge Companion To Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. ^ Harman, C. (1998). Marxism and History. Two Essays. London: Bookmarks.
  10. ^ Hall, S. (2019: 143). Essential Essays. Volume 1. Morley, D. (ed.). London: Duke University Press.
  11. ^ Scaff, Lawrence A. (June 1984). "Weber before Weberian Sociology". The British Journal of Sociology. 35 (2): 190–215. doi:10.2307/590232. JSTOR 590232.
  12. ^ Morera, Esteve (March 1990). "Gramsci and Democracy". Canadian Journal of Political Science. 23 (1): 28, 29.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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)
  15. ^ 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)
  16. ^ Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Albion, 1970. 22–23. Print.
  17. ^ Reich, Wilhelm (1970). The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Albion. p. 14.
  18. ^ Williams, Raymond (November–December 1973). "Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory". New Left Review. I (82).
  19. ^ Guattari, Félix. Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977, edited by Sylvère Lotringer, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2009, p. 38.
  20. ^ Robinson, R.J. (2023). Base and Superstructure. Understanding Marxism's Second Biggest Idea (2nd ed.). Alton: Putnery:2. pp. Chs 3–5. ISBN 9781838193843.
  21. ^ Lukes, Steven (1983). Miller, David; Siedentop, Larry (eds.). The Nature of Political Theory. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press. p. 104.
  22. ^ Lukes, Steven (1983). Miller, David; Siedentop, Larry (eds.). The Nature of Political Theory. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press. p. 105.
  23. ^ Robinson, R.J. (2023). Base and Superstructure. Understanding Marxism's Second Biggest Idea (2nd ed.). Alton: Putney:2. pp. 194, n.2. ISBN 9781838193843.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Cohen, G.A. (1970). "Symposium: On some criticisms of historical materialism". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes. 44: 121–156. doi:10.1093/aristoteliansupp/44.1.121.
  26. ^ Robinson, R.J. (2023). Base and Superstructure. Understanding Marxism's Second Biggest Idea (2nd ed.). Alton: Putney:2. pp. 190–3. ISBN 9781838193843.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ Sesardić, Neven (1985). Marxian Utopia. Centre for Research into Communist Economies. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0948027010.
  29. ^ Blanshard, Brand (1966). "Reflections on economic determinism". The Journal of Philosophy. 63 (7): 169–178. doi:10.2307/2023949. JSTOR 2023949.

Further reading