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Base and Superstructure constitute the dialectical synthetic pair that is explicitly and implicitly common to every form of socialism. As used by Karl Marx, the pair function as a gestalt for the figure of a given stage of a human culture and the ground of its mode of production and distinguishes the basis of social orders from other, formative and persisting, social conditions.


In Marxist theory, human society consists of two economic parts: the Base and the Superstructure; the base comprehends the relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. These relations fundamentally determine society’s other relationships and ideas, constituting the superstructure; thus, the base determines (conditions) the superstructure, yet, their relation is not strictly causal, because the superstructure often influences the base; however the influence of the base predominates.

Marx postulated the theoretic essentials of the base–superstructure concept in the 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 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]

In Studying Popular Music (1990), the musicologist Richard Middleton says that per Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony theory the political superstructure is related to, yet not determined by, the elements that the economic base comprehends in its articulation; despite ready simplification, Marx’s base determines superstructure axiom 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, i.e. Art, politics, economics, etc.;
  3. the base–superstructure relationship is reciprocal; per Engels: Base determines superstructure only in the last instance.[2]

Contemporary Marxist interpretation criticises said base–superstructure interaction theories, especially Raymond Williams’s arguments against loose, “popular” usages of base and superstructure as discrete entities, which are not the intention of Marx and Engels, to wit:

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.[3]

In developing Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations, Marx identifies the civil society as the economic base and the political society as the political superstructure; to wit critical theory and like writings concern how each affects and conditions the other.[4]

See also

Further reading

  • Calhoun, Craig (ed), Dictionary of the Social Sciences Oxford University Press (2002)

External links

  1. Basis und Überbau A German Political Lexicon Wiki.
  2. Marxist Media Theory


  1. ^ Marx, Karl (1977). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers: Notes by R. Rojas.
  2. ^ Dictionary of the Social Sciences, “Base and superstructure” entry.
  3. ^ Williams, Raymond (November-December 1973). "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory". New Left Review (82).  
  4. ^ Pawel Zaleski, "Tocqueville on Civilian Society. A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality", Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, Felix Meiner Verlag, vol. 50, (2008).


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