Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 28 – Base and Superstructure

Marx wrote in the Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ in 1859 that “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.”

In this Marx argues the importance in understanding the transformation of society of the relationship between its base and its superstructure, which, like the rest of the Preface, has been the subject of no end of controversy since.

The analogy, metaphor, or whatever you want to call it – let’s call it conceptual analysis corresponding to real features of a whole social formation – is important to a Marxist understanding of the alternative to capitalism because, at its simplest, changing the superstructure, or rather attempting to do so, without changing its economic base – the forces and relations of production – will effect no fundamental change, effect no fundamental reordering and will effect no fundamental transformation of that social formation.

Without development of the productive forces inequality and destructive competition will continue, while without the abolition of classes exploitation and oppression will also continue.  Social and political programmes that fail to promise the revolutionary transformation of the current economic structure will therefore fail to remove inequality or abolish oppression and exploitation.

Let’s see how such an understanding informs the approach of Marxists to concrete political developments.

In Britain Jeremy Corbyn has captured the imagination of millions of people with his appeal to counter poverty and inequality with a more humane and caring politics.  In relating to him and his polices many people are attracted by his honesty and integrity, that he says what he believes and does not try to triangulate policies to be all things to all people, in the process strangling anything that might be progressive within them.

The Marxist approach however will question just how successful his policies might be, based as they are on the actions of a capitalist state – routinely called the ‘public sector’ –  and not on any revolutionary change in the class relations of society.  Corbyn, lest anyone be under any misapprehension, is not proposing to overthrow capitalism.  The exploitation of labour and the continued domination of the means of production by capital through exclusion of the working class from its ownership, will continue to form the irreducible bedrock of inequality in society, in terms of both economic resources and political power.

In fairness, it should be noted that there have been criticisms of the previous models of state ownership coming from the Corbyn leadership, models based on bureaucratic nationalisation and ownership by the state. This has led to references to other approaches, such as workers’ cooperatives, which offer a much more positive and potentially revolutionary alternative based on the actions of workers themselves.  Whether this will have any real currency in Corbyn’s programme remains to be seen.  Cooperatives based wholly on state sponsorship and support will struggle to attain the autonomy and freedom required to be genuine expressions of workers’ self-activity.

At a lower level of abstraction, we can see the same weakness in Corbyn’s claim that he can have a ‘jobs Brexit’, as if the relative isolation and restriction on British capitalism through exiting the EU would afford similar scope for reforms in a poorer British capitalism.  The alternative available is an international effort to make reforms at an international level, to the EU as a whole, reflecting as it does an increasingly globalised capitalist system.

Claims can be made to Corbyn’s sincerity and honesty, and these have shown themselves on many occasions to be admirable qualities, which they are for all socialists.  But what reforms Corbyn can make to reduce inequality, or take some edges off the oppression and exploitation of British capitalism, will depend not simply and not mainly on his subjective intentions, honest or otherwise.

They will depend on the power and cogency of the changes he can assist in effecting to the fundamentals of the economic system and the class power built upon it.  Failure in relation to the latter will brook no reprieve due to his integrity and sincerest intentions.  Instead this integrity and sincerity will be employed to explain and mitigate his failure, and will be all the more powerful in excusing such failure due to their previous undoubted verification.

This is what Marx meant by the importance of the relation between the base and superstructure of society, but this is not all he meant.

Some Marxists will deduce from this analysis that the duty of Marxists is to warn of Corbyn’s inevitable failure, or his betrayal and the disappointment it will create.  But if this were all that was required, or even mainly required, then life would be a lot simpler.

But it would also have proved Marx’s view of the relation between base and superstructure wrong.  For if denunciations by relatively small political groups could direct the class struggle, win the working class from left social democrats like Corbyn to Marxism, and in the process overthrow capitalism, then just how true would Marx’s claim be that “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.”

Ideas can become powerful forces in society, and the current ideas about capitalism which have fed working class passivity are just such an example, but these ideas can themselves only become powerful if they find a material force in which and through which they are enacted; and they can only do this when they become consistent with, and express, powerful forces within the forces and relations of production.

Future posts i this series will look at the class struggle, the political programme of Marxism and what are the many ways in which socialism can be embodied in working class practice.  But all these must take account of the consciousness that inevitably arises when workers do not own the means of production, are mere hired labour and must compete with each other both for jobs and the terms and conditions of their employment.  All these are a given in society; are a given when you grow up and have to seek a living; and are a given in almost everything you are taught in school, through the media and before, during and after your working life.

So, as I have argued repeatedly – there must be some development of the forces and relations of production that forms the basis for the development of a socialist consciousness among the mass of the working class, and not just from episodic and voluntarist political struggle led by some vanguard organisation (that must, in order to be a vanguard, be in advance of the mass of workers, who are nevertheless claimed to be the subject and object of revolutionary transformation).

The forces of the working class movement must themselves be solidly based on the relations and forces of production and their actions must reflect not only their own consciousness of the transformation pregnant in society but must correspond to the actual changes that proceed even without their conscious intervention.  While the working class must bridge this disjuncture between what it must seek and what exists, we start from their separation.

As Marx says – “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 . . .“  I might think I’m God’s gift to the opposite sex when I strut my stuff in the disco (and I don’t even do that anymore) but the opposite sex will be quick to disabuse me of such fanciful notions.  Marxist groups might think they advance the cause of the working class through condemnation of their mis-leaders but these workers have time and time again passed them by in their pursuit of ‘false Gods’.

At least part of the answer is to be part of this working class movement and to fight its battles with and beside them – its battles, not the ones that Marxists would choose that they fight.  For Marxists, this is the ABC of their politics, but too often many retreat into a view that ideas, their ideas, will trump the contradictions of material reality that Marx says determines consciousness.

To give but one example of this that has been mentioned many times on this blog – the supporters of Lexit want British workers to fight racism and xenophobia and overthrow membership of the European Union and its ‘fortress Europe’ immigration policy.  They want to oppose austerity by opposing the organisation that has stood behind it in member state after member state.  Yet this is a colossal failure because their myopic comprehension of Marxism fails to register the material reality of the international centralisation and concentration of capitalism and the political forms that have accompanied it and which are the real material contradictions that Marx says we must stand upon – not seek to run away from.

We cannot oppose international capitalism by seeking to exit its political structures when the only concrete alternative is a less advanced economic and political formation based on a national economy and a single national state.  If this were so then the advance of capitalism, contrary to the expectations of Marx, is an advance away from the possibility of socialism.  Such reactionary socialisms were severely criticised by Marx early in his political development in ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Terry Eagleton in his book ‘Ideology: An Introduction’ states that:

“The base-superstructure doctrine has been widely attacked for being static, hierarchical, dualistic and mechanistic, even in those more sophisticated accounts of it in which the superstructure reacts back dialectically to condition the material base. It might therefore be timely and suitably unfashionable to enter a word or two in its defence. Let us be clear first what it is not asserting. It is not out to argue that prisons and parliamentary democracy, school rooms and sexual fantasies, are any less real than steel mills or sterling. Churches and cinemas are quite as material as coal mines; it is just that, on this argument, they cannot be the ultimate catalysts of revolutionary social change. The point of the base-superstructure doctrine lies in the question of determinations— of what ‘level’ of social life most powerfully and crucially conditions the others, and therefore of what arena of activity would be most relevant to effecting a thoroughgoing social transformation.”

In the next post we will look some more at the nature of the base-superstructure distinction.

Back to part 27

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