Definition of Base and Superstructure

Core Concepts of Marxist Theory

Base and superstructure
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Base and superstructure are two linked theoretical concepts developed by Karl Marx, one of sociology's founders. Base refers to the production forces, or the materials and resources, that generate the goods society needs. Superstructure describes all other aspects of society.

Trier Commemorates Karl Marx 200th Anniversary
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The Link Between Superstructure and Base

Society's superstructure includes the culture, ideology, norms, and identities that people inhabit. In addition, it refers to the social institutions, political structure, and the state—or society's governing apparatus. Marx argued that the superstructure grows out of the base and reflects the ruling class' interests. As such, the superstructure justifies how the base operates and defends the power of the elite.

Neither the base nor the superstructure is naturally occurring or static. They are both social creations, or the accumulation of constantly evolving social interactions between people.

In "The German Ideology," written with Friedrich Engels, Marx offered a critique of Hegel’s theory about how society operates. Based on the principles of Idealism, Hegel asserted that ideology determines social life, that people's thoughts shape the world around them. Considering the historical shifts production has undergone, especially the shift from feudalist to capitalist production, Hegel’s theory did not satisfy Marx.

Understanding History Through Materialism

Karl Marx believed that the shift to a capitalist mode of production had sweeping implications for the social structure. He asserted that it reconfigured the superstructure in drastic ways and instead posed a “materialist” way of understanding history. Known as “historical materialism,” this idea posits that what we produce in order to live determines all else in society. Building on this concept, Marx posed a new way of thinking about the relationship between thought and lived reality.

Importantly, Marx argued that this is not a neutral relationship, as a great deal depends on the way the superstructure emerges from the base. The place where norms, values, beliefs, and ideology reside, the superstructure legitimizes the base. It creates the conditions in which the relations of production seem fair and natural, though they may actually be unjust and designed to benefit the ruling class only.

Marx argued that religious ideology that urges people to obey authority and work hard for salvation is one way the superstructure justifies the base, as it generates an acceptance of one’s conditions as they are. After Marx, philosopher Antonio Gramsci elaborated on the role education plays in training people to obediently serve in their designated roles in the workforce. As Marx did, Gramsci wrote about how the state, or political apparatus, functions to protect the elite's interests. For example, the federal government has bailed out private banks that have collapsed.

Early Writing

In his early writing, Marx committed himself to the principles of historical materialism and the causal relationship between base and superstructure. However, as his theory grew more complex, Marx reframed the relationship between base and superstructure as dialectical, meaning that each influences the other. Hence, if the base changes so does the superstructure; the reverse occurs as well.

Marx expected the working class to eventually revolt because he thought that once they realized how exploited they were for the benefit of the ruling class, they would decide to change matters. This would lead to a significant change in the base. How goods are produced and under what conditions would shift.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Definition of Base and Superstructure." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 28). Definition of Base and Superstructure. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Definition of Base and Superstructure." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).