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In the Preface to the first published installment of his critique of political economy, Marx presented the classic statement of the base and superstructure metaphor. In a sketch of his work’s ”guiding thread,” Marx (1907: lv) noted that humankind enters determinate, necessary social relations of production appropriate to a determinate developmental stage of the material forces of production. These relations, comprised of real individuals, their activity, and the material conditions in which they live, constitute the ”economic structure” – the real basis of the legal and political superstructure and determinate forms of social consciousness. Consciousness does not determine social being; being determines consciousness.
The material infrastructure, Marx maintained, was the real locus of fundamental transformation -not new ideas or changes in the superstructure. The social relations of production – property relations -initially facilitate but later fetter the development of the material forces of production, leading to social change. As ”the economic foundation” transforms, ”the whole immense superstructure sooner or later revolutionizes itself” (Marx 1907: lv). This formulation suggests that the ”economic foundation” – the economy – directly determines the superstructure.
The Preface’s compressed style facilitates narrow readings and misinterpretations but there was a reason for Marx’s cryptic prose. The short, tight Preface reinforced revolutionaries’ enthusiasm for change even though the ensuing dry economic analysis of this incomplete segment of Marx’s critique revealed little about capitalism’s fundamental contradictions. The specific fissure points of a social formation’s weaknesses could lead to radical social transformation, the Preface indicated, and that promising sketch could entice one to read this installment of the critique and the next (whenever it might appear).
After Marx’s death, Engels rejected mechanistic interpretations of Marx’s Preface, arguing the base was determinate ”only in the last instance.” But Engels’ scientific socialism and the Marx/Darwin parallels he had emphasized, reinforced an unreflexive determinism. Nevertheless, a close reading of Marx’s Preface demonstrates that economic or technological determinist interpretations were misguided understandings of the base/superstructure metaphor.
The material forces of production consist of raw materials, machinery, technology, production facilities, and labor power. The conscious, revolutionary subject – the proletariat – is one of the productive forces. Similarly, the social relations of production include workers’ aggregation in increasingly larger factories which could influence class consciousness and fuel revolutionary enthusiasm. Read this way, Marx’s position is not objectively (or structurally) deterministic.
Because it is in ”the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophical, in short, ideological forms” that humankind became ”conscious of this conflict,” Marx (1907: lv-lvi) wanted to emphasize that the social relations of production must be changed for real social transformation to follow:
A social formation does not collapse before all the forces of production, of which it is capable, are developed and new, superior relations of production do not take their place before the material conditions of existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore humankind always sets for itself only the tasks that it can solve, since closer examination shows that the task itself only arises where the material conditions for its solution are already at hand or at least in the process of being grasped. (Marx 1907: lvi)
Change entails conscious human action. Louis Althusser argued that capitalist reproduction dominates the base/superstructure relation. He claimed that ideology is pervasive and operates through ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). Ideology provides an ”imaginary relation” to the relations of production that helps reproduce those relations rather than exposing their contradictions. The ISAs repress real understanding and reproduce the relations of production, leaving the base determinate in the last instance. By downplaying conscious, historical subjects and emphasizing a system of structures, Althusser removes the revolutionary subject from the metaphor and misrepresents Marx in a different way than the economic determinists.
- Althusser, L. (1972 ) Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, trans. B. Brewster. NLB, London.
- Marx, K. (1907)  Zur Kritik der politischen Okonomie (Towards the Critique of Political Economy). Dietz, Stuttgart.
- Marx, K. (1970)  A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. S. Ryazanskaya. Progress Publishers, Moscow.