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Red Theory: The socialist transformation of the superstructure

Analysis by J. Sykes |
November 7, 2022
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In our previous article on the relationship between the superstructure and the economic base in historical materialism, we explained that the superstructure is basically the cultural, ideological, political and legal aspect of the mode of production, which arises from the economic base and, in turn, supports and helps reproduce the economic base. We also looked at how ideology arises from class struggle. Both bourgeois ideology and proletarian ideology arise from the class struggle in the capitalist mode of production, and, since the capitalist class is dominant and controls the superstructure under capitalism, their ideology is likewise dominant. 

Socialism will turn the productive relations (the class relations) of society on their head, putting the working class in power. Also, it will also revolutionize the superstructure, giving control of the cultural, ideological, political and legal apparatuses of the state to the working class. 

In his 1923 article, “On Cooperation,” Lenin writes, 

“Two main tasks confront us, which constitute the epoch - to reorganize our machinery of state, which is utterly useless, in which we took over in its entirety from the preceding epoch; during the past five years of struggle we did not, and could not, drastically reorganize it. Our second task is educational work among the peasants. And the economic object of this educational work among the peasants is to organize the latter in cooperative societies. If the whole of the peasantry had been organized in cooperatives, we would by now have been standing with both feet on the soil of socialism. But the organization of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture, and the peasants (precisely among the peasants as the overwhelming mass) that cannot, in fact, be achieved without a cultural revolution.”

Lenin’s point here is that working class culture, that is, the ideology of the working class, must be used to reshape society, and that those ideas must be made to take root firmly among all of the allied classes and strata in the continuing class struggle against the bourgeoisie during socialism. The first task, as Lenin saw it, was political and legal. The state had to be reorganized to align with the needs of the socialist revolution. The laws of the old society had been written to benefit the capitalist class at the expense of the broad masses of the people. They were written first and foremost to protect private property, and they had to be rewritten to the benefit of the Soviet workers and peasants. The whole state apparatus had to be rebuilt in line with principles of proletarian, Soviet democracy. 

The second task was educational. But this educational work (increasing literacy, Marxist education, cultural enrichment) had to be connected to the practice of reshaping society. In other words, theory was to be learned through practice, and the petty bourgeois ideology of the peasantry was to be overcome through practice. The Russian peasants had to be convinced through practical experience of the superiority of Marxism and the socialist system. At the same time, cultural institutions like theater, ballet, symphonies and opera, which had previously been the exclusive property of the capitalists, were likewise democratized. Museums, film houses, publishing houses, and the press were all nationalized. Even orchestras were brought to the factories to play for the workers. 

When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, only 41.7% of the population was literate. By 1939, in just 22 years, literacy rose to 87.4%. To give some perspective to this statistic, the current literacy rate in the United States in 2022 is 79%. This revolution in education in the Soviet Union involved the creation of national alphabets for several oppressed nationalities, along with a tremendous upsurge in broad scientific and technical education. The Soviet Union was a poor and backwards country, with underdeveloped productive forces. Building socialism requires the development of the productive forces in order to eliminate scarcity, and developing the productive forces requires an educated working class, technically and politically, that has the knowledge and the will to reshape society in its own image. 

Every socialist state has had to revolutionize the superstructure in this way, both in terms of building a state of the working class, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in terms of revolutionizing culture and ideology. Giving the masses of the people a broad education in science, technology, literature and culture is important to creating a society that has the scientific knowledge and understanding to propel itself forward. It is also essential that the ideology of the working class commands the heights of the superstructure. Marxism-Leninism is the science of revolution, and as such it must guide the socialist political, legal and military apparatuses, as well as guide the education and cultural development of the people. 

We can learn from the successes and failures of past and present practice. The revisionist degeneration and collapse of the Soviet Union and a number of other socialist countries at the end of the 20th century demonstrates that only the ideology of the working class, Marxism-Leninism, can safeguard the gains of socialism and guide it forward in continuing the revolution towards building a communist society. In part this means waging a class struggle within the superstructure. 

The experience of China in the late 1960s and 70s also shows us that the cultural revolution must be a protracted struggle rather than a hurried one, and that it must rely on careful and planned education and persuasion under the guidance and leadership of the party. Socialist countries such as Cuba and China have likewise shown that to persevere under the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, counter-revolution and imperialist intervention can be thwarted as the gains of the revolution are advanced and consolidated. 

Marxism-Leninism has always understood that it is not sufficient to seize the means of production without also carrying out a broad and thorough revolution of the superstructure. Only by smashing the state apparatuses of the bourgeoisie and replacing them with the dictatorship of the proletariat, can the working class reshape society according to the needs of the broad masses of the people - and, only by educating the masses of the people in Marxism and by developing a well-educated, scientific socialist culture, can the gains of the revolution be safeguarded and carried forward.