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.

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