Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 29 – base and superstructure 2

The distinction Marx made between base and superstructure may seem tangential to elaboration of his views on the alternative to capitalism but this is not the case.

Most people calling themselves socialist think that the state, which is part of the superstructure (as explained in earlier posts), will make progressive changes to the base – the economy.  This is either through taxation and increased state expenditure or through more radical measures such as nationalisation, or even sponsorship of workers’ cooperatives.

Reformist socialists see this coming about through elections and a new governing party, using the existing state machinery to effect the required changes.  Many Marxists see it coming about through destruction of the existing (capitalist) state and creation of a new one.  It is argued that this superstructural change will then effect revolutionary transformation of the economy.

Accusations that this is simply the failed model of the Russian Revolution are rebutted by statements that the new workers’ state will be more democratic than the existing one, and certainly more than the Russian one, with workers’ councils rather than a parliament – with rights to recall delegates, regular replacement of these delegates and their payment at the average workers’ wage.

Of course, the latter has a lot more going for it than the former; Marx believed you could not simply take over the existing state machinery to create a new society that is based on the working majority.  He believed that the state was:

“the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests and in which the whole of the civil society of an epoch is epitomised.”  The modern state is thus the “form of organisation which the bourgeoisie are compelled to adopt, both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests.”

The Marxist view of the state will be the subject of later posts in this series.  For now, it is important to establish something fundamental about Marx’s understanding of the state and what this means for his alternative, for it is not the case that Marx foresaw any sort of state carrying out the transformation of capitalism into a new workers’ society.

The Russian Revolution has given us an experience in which the working class was so small and weak that the state became not only the main actor in that revolution, but became the main reference point in deciding whether this was indeed a socialist revolution and should be defended as such; whether it was considered healthy, and the home of genuine socialism, or unhealthy – product of a process of deformity or degeneration – but which should be defended nonetheless.

The character of the state became key to the debate, but shifted focus away from the basic truth of Marx’s alternative, which was that socialist revolution is not simply a political revolution but a social revolution. This social revolution could not depend on any state, except in so far as it was a mechanism to defend what made the transformation a social one, which is a reordering of the relations of production. It was this changed relations of production – changes to the material base – that would make a revolution socialist and make the superstructure, including a workers’ state that defended them, also ‘socialist’.

It is not the democratic content of the state that is the fundamental determinant of the healthy nature of any society issuing from socialist revolution but the relations of production.  In Russia in 1917-18 the workers very quickly became dependent on the state to reorganise production after early experiences of workers’ control, and the state very quickly became dependent on capitalist and managerial middle class expertise to run it – a very clear demonstration of the fundamental importance of the base over the superstructure.  No amount of democracy in the organisation of the state will compensate for a productive base lacking the necessary level of development.

Anarchists are therefore only partly right to blame the Bolsheviks for their policy of limiting direct workers’ control of industry after the revolution.  A fundamental mistake was to make the necessity of adopting state ownership and bourgeois experts a virtue,so that state ownership became socialism and the problem just one of the use of experts and lack of democracy in the state.

Marx believed that the state should be as small as possible and wither away, as Lenin so famously put it.  Unfortunately, no one has been able to explain how a revolution whose aim is widespread state ownership and control would lead to the state withering away. How could it, if the state becomes the means by which the economy is managed and developed?

Transformation of the productive forces and relations of production, the base, requires the transformation of the relations of production in which the capital relation is replaced by workers’ ownership of production and the removal of capitalist monopoly ownership of production, whether this is in the form of individual capitalist ownership or of shareholder capitalism in terms of trusts, monopolies etc.

The role of the state in these circumstances is reduced to legal title over the physical means of production, which could not, within limits, be bought and sold by individual workplaces or cooperatives; and general coordinating or regulatory activities.  It would also assist in society’s deliberation over its overall priorities in terms of material production and alternatives to it such as reduced working time.

The effective coordination of society’s production and its development would be less and less the role of the state and more and more the outcome of the growth of cooperative production, i.e. by the workers involved in production themselves.  That it should be thought to be the role of a workers’ state is only a legacy of social-democracy in capitalist countries and the dead hand of Stalinism.

This mistaken view of socialist revolution – that it primarily involves state ownership and a workers’ state, and its reflection in terms of the base-superstructure distinction – can be seen in an interesting article by Chris Harman on this subject.

He says, for example, that:

“Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces. How? Because of the activity of the ‘superstructure’ in trying to stop new forms of production and exploitation that challenge the monopoly of wealth and power of the old ruling class. Its laws declare the new ways to be ille­gal. Its religious institutions denounce them as immoral. Its police use torture against them. Its armies sack towns where they are practiced.”

Of course, this is true, as far as it goes, but as the answer to the question posed it is not true, or rather the actions of the superstructure are not the main reason that the “Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces.”  It is obviously the relations of production themselves – the capitalist monopoly of ownership of the means of production and the working class’s ownership only of its own labour power – that is the greatest impediment to the growth of cooperative ownership by the workers and a new cooperative economy.

This mistake of isolating the role of the superstructure in the role of defending the relations of production is carried further through believing that the superstructure is the only or primary means of transforming the base of society, the forces and relations of production. It leads to the following statement:

“The massive political and ideological struggles that arise as a result, decide, for Marx, whether a rising class, based on new forces of production, displaces an old ruling class. And so it is an absolute travesty of his views to claim that he ‘neglects’ the polit­ical or ideological element.”

In saying this however, it is rather that Harman neglects the transformation at the ‘base’ which is required to effect socialist revolution.

So, in speaking (correctly) of the increasing parasitical role of a growing state, evident in previous modes of production before capitalism, but also true of it, which led to the collapse of previous societies he states:

“But none of these developments take place without massive political and ideological struggles. It is these which determine whether one set of social activities (those of the superstructure) cramp a different set of social activities (those involved in main­taining and developing the material base). It is these which decide, for Marx, whether the existing ruling class maintains its power until it ruins society, or whether a rising class, based on new forms of production, displaces it.”

He goes on – “‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, wrote Marx and Engels at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto. But the class struggle is precisely the struggle between those who use the political and ideological institutions of the superstructure to maintain their power over the productive ‘base’ and exploitation, and those who put up resistance to them.”

“The superstructure exists to defend exploitation and its fruits. Any real fight against the existing structures of exploitation becomes a fight against the superstructure, a political fight. As Lenin put it, ‘Politics is concentrated economics.’”1

It is as if the superstructure can define the base, which is the opposite of what Marx intended but which informs the conceptions of small Marxist groups, who conceive of revolution essentially as involving smashing the capitalist state by a vanguard revolutionary party.  What is missing is the actions of a whole class transforming the relations of production through its own activity by directly transforming these relations themselves.

This is not to reject the need to destroy the capitalist state, or need to create a workers’ state, or the various mechanisms identified by Marx to ensure its democratic functioning, or the need to create a working-class party to fight for such things.  It is just that all these must rest on a conception of revolution which places these things into their proper context and perspective.  Otherwise relatively superficial – ‘superstructural’ phenomena- become misinterpreted as prefiguring socialist revolution when the material basis for such a revolution – at the level of the relations of production and the consciousness to which they give rise – are not in place.

This is reflected in repeated misinterpretation of purely political revolutions as either involving or immediately heralding socialist ones, or misguided optimism that social struggles involve proximate socialist revolution – think Venezuela and Chavismo, Castroism, May 1968 or events in France today etc. etc.  Not only does this lead to unnecessary disappointment but it also mis-educates everyone, including those who argue it, how exactly socialism can be expected to come about and even what it is.

At this point it is necessary to recall, using the base-superstructure distinction, just what gives rise to workers’ consciousness.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx says:

“Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”

It is often assumed that the realm of ideas belongs to the superstructure, which may be correct when we think of schools, media etc., but it is not true that people get their ideas about how society works, what the constraints on changing it are, and what an alternative might be, only or even mainly from these superstructural institutions.  In fact, the most basic ideas about society come from the forces and relations of production, the base, including ideas about what capitalism is and how it might be changed.

As Marx says above, a change in material conditions changes people’s consciousness and these material conditions are also economic and social as well as political and cultural.  According to Marx the most fundamental are the economic and social and it is changes to these that will have the most effect on people’s consciousness.

Among many Marxists however, as I have noted above, it often appears that it is only political struggle that matters or is decisive, and it is argued that changing the relations of production can only be achieved, or even only begun, after seizure of political power.

This conflicts with Marx’s support for workers cooperatives, which can and do precede political revolution, but which will ultimately require the latter to defend them and confirm them as the starting point of a new socialist mode of production.  Otherwise what is missed is that their prior growth under capitalism can both materially and politically strengthen the working class in its future conquest of political power.

 

1 It is ironic that Harman employs this quote from Lenin, who used this phrase in the debate on the role of Trade Unions inside the Bolshevik Party after the Russian revolution. In this debate Lenin was referring to the need to evaluate the way forward in political terms, but the context also showed the determining role of the level of economic development, which handicapped the revolution and ultimately led to its thorough degeneration.  Lenin’s aphorism isn’t very helpful in our context.

4 thoughts on “Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 29 – base and superstructure 2

  1. I hope you decide to reference the essay by the late G.A.Cohen ‘Reconsidering Historical Materialism’. Cohen brought to the exposition of the thought of Karl Marx some of the technical rigour associated with analytical philosophy, something not usually present in Marxist exposition.

    I will just refer to a couple of points he makes in his essay and leave it to your readers to read the lengthy essay using their own mental resource.

    He says ‘scepticism about historical materialism should leave the socialist project more or less where it would otherwise be.’

    The second point he makes in footnote three ‘The political applicability of historical materialism is limited, since it is a theory about epochal development, and the time horizon of political action necessarily falls short of the epochal (the epochal scope of historical materialism is something which people are inclined to forget)’

    I have always thought that an epochal theory about History is Hegelian in flavour and therefore speculative in scope. The base and superstructure theory seems to want to explain everything important in general terms by referring to nothing that is historic specific. The only essay I know that makes a little progress in explaining the history of culture as class ideology is the one by Raymond Williams ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.’

    G.A. Cohen essay can be found in Marxist Theory ed by Alex Callinicos
    Williams essay can be found in his collection Culture and Materialism.

    • Thanks for the references – I’ll look them up when I get the time, hopefully over the holidays.

      Naturally I don’t agree with Cohen, and the references in the posts to the lessons of the Russian revolution are entirely relevant to the horizon of political action today – something historically specific that is explained by the force of more general historical factors.

      In fact one of the things that can be learned from the base-superstructure distinction is that the political horizon of much of the Marxist left is far too short. You will be familiar with this yourself, with the left’s chronic search for the next big thing and short-cut to building its revolutionary party, which is divorced completely from the working class as a whole and the material base upon which it forms its political consciousness.

  2. Yet ‘marxist’ based political organisations never acted as if the base and superstructure hypothesis could be a sort of theory for practical guidance in politics and social policy making. The base superstructure was an hypothesis or a thought experiment that Marx was testing out for his own understanding. It was an hypothesis that he found problematic, this becomes clear when he asks how it might be possible to explain ideology, the example he used was the high culture of the ancient Greeks in the context of its low level of technological development, this is of course not the only thought he entertained against his own hypothesis. I doubt he kept to the proposition that the windmill was the basis of medieval Catholicism.

    The followers of Marx acted on the basis of another hypothesis put forward by the older Marx, ie the so called law of the concentration and centralisation of capital. This law was noted by Lenin and others in the context of the first world war, never before and actually never since did the capitalist State control so much of economic production as with the first and then second world wars. The whole State capitalist ‘theory’ is based on a law of economic concentration and the inevitability of war between capitalist States.

    What then is the likely relationship between a supposed law of economic concentration, the coming to power of the corporate monopolies and workers cooperation? Some might suppose that the workers have only to takeover the management of the corporate monopolies to enhance socialism. others might suppose that the workers would need to brake up the corporate monopolies to get to a new socialist society!

    • If breaking up corporate monopolies hindered their take over by workers for cooperative production then there would be no reason to break them up.

      As for the usefulness of the base-superstructure distinction, one purpose of these posts is to demonstrate such usefulness. Like any metaphor it has its limits but within these vitally important aspects of history can be more readily understood.

      As Marx said “The middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics.”

      He also stated that “the Church of England will more readily pardon an attack on its Thirty-Nine Articles than 1/39the of its income.”

      This has also been demonstrated more recently, in that the Catholic Church in Ireland would rather protect its reputation and its personnel than protect women and children from its abuses, and would rather lose its reputation than pay up compensation it promised to its victims, even when that compensation has been much reduced by the exculpatory actions of the Irish State.

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