Base and Superstructure
Mechanical materialism and its aftermath
The answers given to these questions lead to very different views about how society develops.
At the one extreme, there is the view that the base is the forces of production, that they inevitably advance, and that this in turn leads to changes in society.
Political and ideological struggle is then seen as playing no real role. Human beings are products of their circumstances, and history proceeds completely independently of their will. The outcome of wars, revolutions, philosophical arguments or what-not is always determined in advance. It would have made not one iota of difference to history if Robespierre had walked under a carriage in 1788 or if the sealed train had crashed in April 1917.
This view of Marxism is based upon a certain reading of Marx himself, in particular upon a powerful polemical passage in The Poverty of Philosophy:
In acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning a living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill society with an industrial capitalist.
It is in the years after Marxs death that such a mechanical, determinist view of history comes to be regarded as Marxist orthodoxy. It was during this period that Marxism came to hegemonise the German workers movement, and through it the Second International. But it was Marxism as seen through the eyes of Karl Kautsky, the Pope of Marxism.
For Kautsky, historical development had inevitably produced each mode of production in turn antiquity, feudalism, capitalism and would eventually lead to socialism. There was an inevitable…adaptation of forms of appropriation to forms of production. Revolutionary movements could not alter this pattern of development. Thus the Hussites of the 15th century and the revolutionary Anabaptists of the 16th century had been able to fight courageously and to present the vision of a new society; but, for Kautsky, they could not alter the inevitable development of history:
The direction of social development does not depend on the use of peaceful methods or violent struggles. It is determined by the progress and needs of the methods of production. If the outcome of violent revolutionary struggles does not correspond to the intentions of the revolutionary combatants, this only signifies that these intentions stand in opposition to the development of the needs of production.
Violent revolutionary struggles can never determine the direction of social development, they can only in certain circumstances accelerate their pace…
The task of revolutionary socialists under modem capitalism was not to try to cut short the historical process, but simply to reflect its development by carefully building up socialist organisation until capitalism was ready to turn into socialism. But, at the same time, counter-revolutionaries could not stop the onward march of the forces of production and, therefore, of historical evolution. Kautsky insisted that regression from more advanced to more backward forces of production never occurred. Economic development, said his most influential work, his introduction to the German Social Democratic Partys Erfurt Programme, will lead inevitably to the… conquest of the government in the interests of the [working] class.
Very close to Kautskys formulations were those of the pioneer Russian Marxist, Plekhanov. He held that the development of production automatically resulted in changes in the superstructure. There is no way human endeavour can block the development of the forces of production. Social development is a process expressing laws. The final cause of the social relationships lies in the state of the productive forces. Productive forces… determine… social relations, i.e. economic relations.
He provides a formula which sets out a hierarchy of causation in history. The state of the productive forces determines the economic relations of society. A socio-political system then develops on this economic basis. The mentality of men living in society [is] determined in part directly by the economic conditions obtaining and in part by the entire socio-political system that has arisen on that foundation. Finally, the various ideologies … reflect the properties of that mentality.
He would assert that history is made by men, but then go on to insist that the average axis of mankinds intellectual development runs parallel to that of its economic development, so that in the end all that really matters is the economic development.
The outcome of great historical events like the French Revolution did not depend at all on the role played by individuals like Mirabeau or Robespierre:
No matter what the qualities of a given individual may be, they cannot eliminate the given economic relations if the latter conform to the given state of the productive forces.
Talented people can change only individual features of events, not their general trend.
Just as Kautskys interpretation of Marxism dominated in the parties of the Second International, Plekhanovs was taken up as the orthodoxy by the Stalinist parties from the late 1920s onwards. In the hands of Stalin and his theoreticians it became an unbendable historical law: development of the forces of production inevitably led to corresponding changes in society, so the growth of industry in Russia would inevitably lead from a workers state to socialism and from socialism to communism, regardless of the misery and hardship involved; by contrast, the clearest indication that Western capitalism had outlived its lifespan was the decline in its forces of production.
The reaction against determinism
Stalinist Marxism did not long outlast Stalin himself. The new left of the late 1950s and the Maoist left of the mid-1960s both launched assaults on the crude mechanical determinist account of history.
They insisted, rightly, that in Marxs own historical writings the Class Struggles in France, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The Civil War in France there is not a hint of a passive, fatalistic approach to historical change. They also laid great emphasis on certain remarks Engels had made in a series of letters he wrote at the very end of his life, in the 1890s, criticising an over-crude use of historical materialism. Engels had written to Starkenburg:
Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc development is based on economic development. But these all react on one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity which ultimately always asserts itself.
And to Bloch:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than that neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless abstract senseless phrase.
The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by victorious classes after a successful battle, etc, juridical forms and even the reflexes of these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form…
There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents, the economic element finally asserts itself as necessary.
The post-1956 new left went on to argue that even the terms base and superstructure were simply a metaphor, not to be taken too seriously. The reciprocal influence of the superstructure on the base meant that determination was not to be seen as a strict causal relationship.
The Maoist left did not begin with such an explicit break with the past. The doyen of this school, Louis Althusser, was quite willing in his early 1960s writings to quote Stalin himself favourably.
But the Althusserians created a new theoretical structure which destroyed most of the content of the old notions of base, superstructure and determination. Society consisted of a number of different structures the political, the economic, the ideological, the linguistic each developing at its own speed, and having an impact on the others. At any particular point in history it could be any one of them that dominated the others. It was only in the last instance that the economic was determinant.
The new left and the Maoist-Althusserian schools were initially very hostile to each other. Yet both of them redefined historical materialism in a way that opened the door to a great dose of voluntarism.
For the 1950s new left, this meant moving away from any tight definition of class or any real concern with how social being might affect social consciousness. In the writings about current events by the most prominent British new left figure, E P Thompson right through from his 1960 essay Revolution to his anti cruise missile writings of 1980 there is the insi