Base and Superstructure

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Base and Superstructure

The Marxist theory of the relationship between Economic Base (or Infrastructure) and Superstructure may be outlined diagrammatically as follows:



Superstructure of Society

The economic base of society determines or heavily influences the nature of the superstructure although for some theorists the superstructure has considerable autonomy vis a vis the economic base and in some cases may help to determine it. There is great theoretical controversy here!1

Economic Base



Different variants of the theory are possible: we might argue that the economic base determines the superstructure or that the economic base heavily influences the superstructure or that influences flow from the superstructure to the economic base as well from the economic base to the superstructure.  Thus, for example George and Wilding comment " the  marxist conception of history and change can be seen either as economic determinism, or as a less rigid doctrine but with economic factors usually seen as the most dominant."

Both Marx and Engels aimed to distance themselves from the cricism of excessive economic determinism. For example , Engels wrote ,..."according to the materialist conception of history, the determining element is ultimately the production and reproduction of real life.....the economic situation is the basis but the various elements of the superstructure.... also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form These ideas may be discussed a little in class.

Several modern studies have made use of the Base- Superstructure model and by way of illustration I can use some of my materials from the Family, Education and the theory of the State.

Modern Marxists such as Zaretsky view the Family not as functional for its members or for society generally but for the capitalist system and the rich ruling class who according to Marxists have most to gain from that system. Thus the Family benefits the capitalist system because:

The family produces labour cheaply in that wives are not paid directly for bearing the children or for their upkeep.

Wives also provide a range of services for their husbands at far less than their market value. If wives were paid fair wages for all of these services, employed husbands would also have to be paid much more which would reduce the profitability of capitalism

The socialisation process as it operates within the family (and elsewhere) encourages conformity and over-readiness to accept authority such that children are too ready to accept unjust authority without question.

Wives may absorb the frustrations of their husbands which otherwise might be turned against the capitalist system.

The growth of the home centred privatised family encourages concentration on family concerns and loyalties at the expense of loyalty to ones workmates thereby discouraging strikes etc which may otherwise have weakened the capitalist system.

Since many women see themselves as mainly housewives if they are actually in paid employment and become unemployed they are often more prepared to return to their housewife role without criticism. According to Marxists they are a Reserve Army of Labour which can be hired when work is plentiful but dismissed relatively easily.

The Marxist theory certainly provides strong opposition to the functionalist Theory of the Family but the Marxist theory too can be criticised

There is considerable working class support for the Family and it is difficult to explain this if the family is a source of working class oppression. Marxists might say that workers do not recognise that the family is actually a source of their exploitation but this would be a very patronising view of the working class.

Families have sometimes helped their members very considerably to cope with the injustices of the capitalist system. Here it is useful to remember, for example the work of Michael Anderson which explained how extended family ties helped the poor to manage when the Welfare State was very poorly developed.

In some politically conscious families there is active opposition to the capitalist system.

Thus the Marxist Theory has strengths but also weaknesses. but at least you can see an illusration of the possible impact of the economic base on one of the institutions of the superstructure: ie the family.

Another example: the possible impact of the economic base on another institution of the superstructure: the Education syatem.

In the Marxist framework the focus of analysis is not simply on industrial societies but on capitalist industrial societies which are seen as unequal, unjust, cruel and conflictual. In the general Marxist theory, the economic base of society heavily influences the superstructure of society which includes the education system as well as the political system, the mass media, the family etc. The French Marxist Althusser sees the education system as one of several ideological state apparatuses which via the socialisation process transmit not a set of widely shared norms and values beneficial to all but a ruling class ideology which helps to protect the privileges of the capitalist class at the expense of the working class.

This Marxist view of education is extended by Bowles and Gintis in Schooling in Capitalist America in which they argue that the socialisation process as operates in schools serves to create an obedient, submissive , fragmented workforce able to come to terms with the alienation for the capitalist depends upon such a workforce for its survival;

that the operation of the US education system With regard to the US education system, Bowles and Gintis claim that its organisation corresponds very closely to the organisation of capitalist production thus preparing students for entry into that system. For example, schools are organised on hierarchical principles of authority and control such that teachers give orders which students are expected to obey. Students have very little influence over the school curriculum; knowledge is fragmented and students have very little opportunity for self-fulfilment in their work.. All of this prepares especially low stream pupils, mainly of working class origin for work which is also hierarchically organised, fragmented, alienating and lacking in intrinsic satisfaction. "Pupils are prepared for their work roles through a close correspondence between the social relationships which govern personal interaction in the workplace and the social relationships of the education system.

Also, Bowles and Gintis argue that schools are especially likely to reward with high grades pupils with personality traits showing subordinacy and discipline and to penalise with low grades pupils with personality traits showing creativity, aggressivity and independence. They claim, therefore that schools reward the personality traits which will be helpful to the capitalist system once school students begin work.


Bowles and Gintis provide a powerful Marxist criticism of formal education but they have been criticised on the grounds that:

1. They have failed to prove that the Hidden Curriculum serves to create an obedient submissive personality. "The Lads" in Paul Willis’ study were far from being submissive and obedient, for example.

2. They underestimate the significance of the formal curriculum for encouraging open minded analysis and criticism of existing social arrangements.

3. They do not explain why and how education should be organised to meet the oppressive demands of the capitalist system given that individual teachers have absolutely no wish to use education for this purpose.

4. We have encountered the idea of the relative autonomy of the State. We may also apply this idea in relation to the relative autonomy of the education system from the capitalist system


Bearing in mind these problems, we can now turn to a description and assessment of Theories of Power. In Marx's original theory, it is claimed that political power is not evenly distributed and that the Capitalist State (which consists of the Institutions of central government, the administration or bureaucracy or civil service, parliamentary assemblies, the judiciary, the police, the military and local government), is not neutral. Rather, state power is used to further the interests of the capitalist class although some concessions may sometimes be made to workers' interests.

This Marxist theory of the Ruling Class and of the State must be considered in the context of Marx's overall analysis of Capitalism based on the existence of social classes around the capitalist production process. The inevitability of conflict between the property-owning Bourgeoisie and the propertyless Proletariat culminating in the eventual revolutionary overthrow of the Bourgeoisie and the replacement of capitalism by the classless, socialist Utopia. Under capitalism, the Bourgeoisie are the economically dominant class arid since for Marx, the characteristics of the Superstructure [the political, legal and ideological structures of society are heavily influenced by the economic base, the economically dominant cIass will also be a politically dominant ruling class able to pressure the institutions of the State to secure its own interests. As Marx and Engels put it: "the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole Bourgeoisie".

The Marxist theory does seem to describe quite accurately the distribution of political power in-capitalist societies at the time that Marx was writing. Political leaders were drawn overwhelmingly from the dominant economic class and could be expected to govern in the interests of this class There were no strong political parties to represent the interests of the working class and trade unions were either weak or non -existent as a result of legislation which made them illegal. There is also strong evidence to suggest that such education as working class children received was designed mainly to inculcate the kind of deference that would keep them firmly in their place and that much, if not all of organised religion played a similar role. There certainly were important social reforms in the course of the 19th century but none which challenged the dominance of the capitalist class and it could be argued that such reforms as were enacted were designed merely to reduce the likelihood of more radical demands.


The next section is a summary of Ralph Miliband’s efforts to rehabilitate and defend the Marxist theory even in the fairly late 20th Century. You can then relate this to your studies of Power and politics.


Thus, MiIiband concluded, a dominant economic class continued to exist and to exercise economic power in the private sector. However, could MiIiband also demonstrate that this class exercised decisive power over the State; that it was, indirectly, a Ruling Class and that State activities served its interests often/usually at the expense of the rest of the population?

On this point, modern Marxists would not wish to argue that the power of capital is the only factor determining the direction of State activity but that it is by far the dominant factor and that working class organisations (the Labour Party and the Trade Unions) are engaged in "Imperfect Competition" with it .They may in certain circumstances gain important victories but these victories do not challenge the overall dominance of capital and may in fact, ultimately help to sustain it by sustaining what Marxists consider to be the myth of pluralist democracy.

Miliband follows conventional definitions of the State, seeing it as consisting of the institutions of central government, the administration or bureaucracy or Civil Service, parliamentary assemblies, the judiciary, the police, the military and local government. These institutions are, in turn, controlled by a number of State Elites, which, for a variety of reasons according to Miliband, will govern the State according to the interests of the dominant economic class. (Before continuing, we may note that John Scott, while broadly sympathetic to Miliband's analysis, has also criticised Miliband for his failure to distinguish adequately between the dominant economic class [5%- 10% of the population ] and the capitalist class [0 .1% of the population] . According to Scott, it is this 0 .1% who are the real Ruling Class. Miliband did address this issue to some extent in a later book -"Divided Societies" but I shall not pursue this issue here.)

Returning to Miliband's analysis as outlined in The State in Capitalist Society, the political dominance of the Bourgeoisie or the dominant economic class is seen as operating through the following mechanisms;

1 The continuing direct role of businessmen in State institutions: a large proportion of Cabinet Ministers have been involved in business and business people have also played an important role in central banking, nationalised industries and such state planning agencies as have existed from time to time and they could be expected to bring a capitalistic bias to government decision-making. However, it is admitted that businessmen fill only a small minority of all state elite positions.2 However, political, administrative and military elites continue to be drawn from the higher reaches of the middle and upper classes The path to these positions will often be via prestigious public schools and universities and it is assumed by Miliband that this pattern of recruitment results in a powerful value consensus as between different state elites and between them and the dominant economic class .Many members of state elites are part of the dominant economic class or at least, on the fringes of it. There will be a strong tendency for state elites to define the "national interest" in terms of the interests of the dominant economic class and to support policies favouring maintenance or at most marginal change to the capitalist status quo. Differences of opinion may exist on matters of detail but not on fundamentals. Also, where talented working class people are recruited to elite positions, they will recognise that success demands the rejection of any radical views they might have held and, in any case, this evidence of upward social mobility into elite positions, if it is not studied too carefully be used to sustain the-myth of equal opportunity.

Miliband also refers to the wealth of the Bourgeoisie as a factor influencing its political power. For example, business pressure groups are well-funded and, therefore, more likely to be effective; business contributions bolster the election campaigns of Right Wing political parties. although pluralist studies appear to call into question the dominance of business pressure groups, critics of pluralism have argued that the power of capital should be seen more in structural and ideological terms which cannot be picked up by pluralist studies and Miliband accepts this line of argument.

4 Developing the idea that "The ideas of the Ruling Class are, in every age, the ruling ideas - the class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production", Miliband points to the dissemination of a dominant class ideology via capitalist socialisation processes which is accepted by most members of the State Elites and by much of the leadership of the Labour Party, especially, perhaps, under Tony Blair. Meanwhile, Miliband argues that many working class people either accept the dominant class ideology or accommodate fairly passively to it and so they are not susceptible to persuasion by radical left ideologies.