Red Theory: The contradiction between base and superstructure

By J. Sykes |
June 19, 2022
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In our exploration of the fundamental concepts of historical materialism so far, we have looked closely at the economic and material base of society. We’ve talked about the forces and relations of production that make up a mode of production. But every mode of production which forms the base of society has a superstructure that arises from it and in turn reinforces it. So, let’s look now at what the superstructure is and the relationship between it and the base. 

As we’ve said before, an essential point of Marxist materialism is that it is monistic rather than dualistic, meaning it doesn’t view consciousness and matter as separate and distinct, but rather it sees consciousness as arising from matter. We’ve talked about how our ideas arise from social practice, but let’s expand upon that as we look at the superstructure of society. 

What is the superstructure? Basically, the superstructure consists of the ideas, institutions and apparatuses of a given society. But we can better understand it if we divide it into two parts. The Italian Marxist-Leninist Antonio Gramsci discussed this in terms of civil and political aspects. The civil aspect of the superstructure is cultural and ideological, while the political aspect is legal and repressive. But they share the same function: reinforcing and maintaining the mode of production.

These are the levers by which the state manages its affairs, and as Lenin argues in The State and Revolution, “The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms.” The state is always and everywhere a dictatorship of one particular class. 

The slave societies, from the theocracies like Mesopotamia and Egypt to the “democracies” of Greece and Rome, were class dictatorships of slavers. The kingdoms and principalities of the Middle Ages were class dictatorships of the noble lords over the toiling peasants. Capitalism is the class dictatorship of the capitalists over the working class, while capitalist “democracy” is only democracy for the rich. And socialism is the class dictatorship of the proletariat over the overthrown bourgeoisie, whereby the working class wields the state to uproot all oppression. 

What are the cultural and ideological apparatuses of the state? In ancient and feudal societies these were the temples and the church which justified the power of the priests, emperors and kings through “divine right.” With the rise of the bourgeoisie these were replaced by the universities and the secular ideas of “natural right,” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property,” according to the chief philosopher of bourgeois liberalism, John Locke. And note the word “property,” there. This phrase is later used in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but the word “property” is replaced by “happiness.” For the “founding fathers” these were, of course, synonymous. It is clear that the bourgeois revolutions only intended for these rights to be held by white men with land and property, not by women, slaves or other oppressed people. It was only through struggle that these rights were extended. The apparatuses the capitalist state uses to enforce and develop its culture and ideology are things like religion (having broken the power of Catholic Church through the Protestant Reformation), the schools, the media and so on, all of which it uses its legal apparatuses, and its money, to dominate. 

What are the legal and repressive apparatuses of the state? These are the state’s laws, courts, police and military. Throughout the whole history of exploitative class society these have been used to protect the class in power and their material interests at the expense of the exploited. All working and oppressed people understand very well who the police and the courts in capitalist society serve, and at whose expense. The laws and the police protect, first and foremost, property, at the expense of workers and oppressed people. Meanwhile, the military supports the material interests of the imperialists abroad in their maneuvers to export capital, dominate resources, control markets and prop up the super-profits that monopoly capitalism bleeds from the oppressed nations. 

Dialectical materialism can help us understand all of this more clearly by looking at how principal and secondary aspects of contradictions interact and transform into one another. First, to be clear, in the contradiction between the base and the superstructure, the base is typically the principal, determining aspect. The superstructure arises from the base and serves the base. 

Second, as we know, in any mode of production one class is dominant. In the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat under capitalism, the bourgeoisie is currently the dominant class. So it is the principal, or determining, aspect of that contradiction. And therefore its ideology is likewise dominant. But proletarian ideology arises from the class struggle in bourgeois society. We should therefore understand that while bourgeois ideology is dominant, proletarian ideology also exists, secondarily, alongside it. 

When, as a result of social revolution, the proletariat takes the dominant role over the bourgeoisie, so too will the ideology of the proletariat take on the leading role in society, allowing the proletariat to transform the entire superstructure, to meet its needs. Socialist revolution will smash the state apparatuses of the capitalists and create a new socialist state. It will revolutionize the entire superstructure, culturally and politically, in order to fully transform society and overcome bourgeois ideas that encourage reaction and counter-revolution. 

This is basically the relationship between base and superstructure. The superstructure arises from the base and in turn reinforces it. But the proletarian state, while still belonging to a particular class, has a different goal than the states of the exploiting classes that came before it. While the pre-socialist states wanted to preserve the rule of their class and exploitative relations of production that were at their foundation, the socialist state, on the contrary, seeks the abolition of all classes and all exploitation. This is because the proletariat is the first class in history with no material interest in exploiting others. 

In The State and Revolution Lenin argues, “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian state, i.e., of the state in general, is impossible except through the process of ‘withering away’.” 

This “withering away” of the socialist state is an essential point. As we’ve seen, the state arises from and reinforces a particular mode of production, and therefore particular relations of production. The purpose of socialism is to transition from an exploitative class society to a society without classes, and a society without classes doesn’t require a state as an instrument of class rule. With no antagonistic classes within or imperialist threat without, the repressive state will have no more material basis. 

This wraps up our discussion of the basics of historical materialism. In our next two articles we will address two of the main ideological opponents of Marxism in philosophy: pragmatism and postmodernism.