What is it that drives change in society? This is one of the most fundamental questions that anyone fighting for a better world seeks to answer.
We can look to Karl Marx’s work. He tried to find a pattern to human history, and in particular his metaphor of a base and a superstructure in society, developed in 1859. It explains an idea that became central to Marx’s philosophy.
Marx wrote that “the economic structure of society forms the real basis on which rises the legal and political superstructure”.
In other words the things that are often seen as making up society—religion, politics, culture, and the institutions that reproduce them—are impossible to understand without first looking at the foundation they are built upon. That foundation is the material economy of work and production.
Frederick Engels, Marx’s lifelong friend and collaborator, said that Marx made a contribution to understanding history as revolutionary as Charles Darwin’s was to understanding biology.
This was “the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion”.
So the development of the productive base affects everything else in society. For Marx the whole of human history can be traced by looking at these two things, how they interact at any one time and, crucially, how and where class struggle comes into them.
The base has two parts—the forces of production and the relations of production. The forces of production are everything we use to make the things that society runs on.
From the computers at the CERN research facility in Switzerland to the chip fryer in McDonald’s, all are part of the forces of production.
There is another part of the “forces” that is often forgotten. Neither the computers nor the chip fryer could function without people doing work. Human labour is therefore the most important part of the forces of production.
Because of new discoveries and growths in knowledge Marx says that the forces of production have a tendency to gradually develop over time. But this isn’t a smooth, gradual process—as if we could go from flint tools to flash drives without any problems.
This is where the second part of the base comes in—relations of production. Whether you work on a slave plantation, an assembly line or in an office makes a difference.
These different ways of organising production—of exploiting the people who do the work—are what Marx called the “relations of production”.
Let’s look at an example. When hunter-gatherer societies began to store food in pots and grow root vegetables it was an historic moment. It meant for the first time, rather than travelling around, tribes could begin to stay in one place.
This vastly changed the way people produced things. It meant more could be grown and a surplus could develop. It also changed people’s relations to one another.
With the surplus, came groups that controlled it and eventually, over a very long period, this led to the emergence of societies divided into classes.
Even before we consider the superstructure, we can see that the base is wracked with conflict between the forces and relations of production.
This is the most important clash. As the productive forces gradually develop, they can come into conflict with the relations that have emerged alongside them.
Initially the relations can promote the developing forces. But relations only stimulate the forces of production for a certain time.
They can end up holding back further innovation, or locking society into practices that undermine its ability to produce. Eventually, Marx says, “these relations turn into fetters”—another word for chains. “Then begins an epoch of social revolution” as the chains are thrown off.
So what of the superstructure? Where does that come in if the main clash is in the base? Some people think Marxists reduce everything to what happens at the economic level, with no regard to politics.
They point to where Marx said that “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord, the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist”. Others argue that the superstructure “freezes” the base and keeps society from changing.
The superstructure includes bits of society like the state, politics, education and religion. They can all exist to justify the rights of those who control the means of production.
But if the base is where social conflicts have their roots, the superstructure is the terrain on which many of the contradictions are fought out. This means economic conflict is expressed in political terms.
As Marx put it, “it is through ideological forms that men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”. The Russian revolutionary Lenin said that “politics is concentrated economics”.
Whenever there are great crises in the productive economy, there are also intense political crises and ideological debates that are crucial for revolutionaries to seize upon.
For Marx there is nothing inevitable about the outcome of periods like this. It’s possible that the old relations are eroded and at some point overthrown—as has happened a number of times.
It’s also possible that the existing order is strong enough to survive and beat off its challengers. In this case stagnation and even collapse can occur.
Time and again advanced civilisations that once seemed stable have crumbled. This is what Marx called in the Communist Manifesto “the mutual destruction of the contending classes”.
It is easy to look back at collapsed societies and ask how those people could have been so stupid. How did they not realise they were destroying their means of existence? But the threat we face from climate change today is just such a threat.
The technologies and resources exist that would allow us to live sustainably. But the relations of production that drive capitalism towards making more and more profit stand in the way of doing so. This leads to the farcical performances of the world’s politicians at climate conferences.
Marx tried to understand how society changes in order to better understand how we could change it. As that question becomes more urgent than ever, Marx’s metaphor of clashes in the base and superstructure remains an essential part of our arsenal.
When feudalism tore itself apart
One good example of Marx’s analysis is feudalism—the society that came before capitalism. At first, feudalism did promote development out of the so-called “Dark Ages”.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, lands that had once depended on it had to reorganise to become self-sufficient. They could no longer build on the spoils of war and the constant flow of slave labour from the empire.
By the beginning of the second millennium a new model had emerged. Ordinary people were serfs, tied to a plot of land that was theirs to farm. They were also tied to a lord who ruled over them and taxed them harshly.
As feudalism took off from 1000 to 1300 the population in Europe exploded. In England in 1086 the population was one million. By 1386 it was seven million.
But in the end feudalism was a victim of this very success. The economy of serfdom was no longer up to the needs of the larger population and the cities springing up around it. The ruling class of squabbling, divided lords was even less so.
And so from around 1300 onwards there was stagnation across Europe. Populations went into decline. Those at the cutting edge of the productive forces—such as yeoman farmers and merchant capitalists—were held back by feudal relations. There were famines and near-permanent wars.
Horrific plagues intensified the instability. The lords responded by working the serfs harder. Across Europe peasant riots and revolts increased.
If you look at Europe in the transition from feudalism to capitalism you find many ideological clashes in the superstructure.
Examples include the religious wars around the Reformation, the radical ideas of the Levellers in the English Civil War, or the philosophy of the Enlightenment and French Revolution of 1789.
The crisis of feudalism started at its base—but its end is impossible to imagine without ideological conflicts such as these in its superstructure.
Karl Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is available free at the Marxists Internet Archive.