The Base/Superstructure Model: Conformist, not Communist

E P Thompson, regarded as one of the greatest of the ‘British Marxist Historians’, argues that the model of base and superstructure is essentially inadequate:

This metaphor from constructional engineering .. must in any case be inadequate to describe the flux of conflict, the dialectic of a changing social process … The model [i.e. base/superstructure] has an inbuilt tendency to reductionism..( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79).

( THOMPSON E P ‘Peculiarities’, p 79.)

Marx and Engels did use the term ‘superstructure’ in The German Ideology (For example, MARX/ENG German, p 57). However the terminology of base/superstructure attained the status it had in the marxist tradition through its use in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This text itself attained its canonical status through Engel’s review of it in Das Volk, August 1859, there ‘Engels invented dialectics, the progenitor of unresolvable ambiguities within the Marxist tradition’. (CARVER Marx & Engels, p 117, and Ch 4.)

An immense load has been place upon this text, more than is justified by the remark in it that its propositions have been ‘a guiding thread’ (MARX 1859 Preface, p 181). For example, G A Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History is almost entirely devoted to defending this text, and it quotes the ‘substantive’ portion of this, beginning with the words ‘In the social production of their life ..’ as a frontpiece. What is remarkable and important here is that this Preface was composed by Marx entirely for tactical purposes and, as such, cannot be taken as a serious statement of his position.

One feature of this text is the absence of the word ‘class’ or of any notion of class-struggle. The vision of historical change which it presents is one where a societal formation emerges out of another like a butterfly from a chrysalis.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since .. it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.
(MARX 1859 Preface , p 182)

An ‘innocent’ reader would scarcely guess that the author of this text was the man who had, less than ten years previously, berated the Willich/Schapper faction of the Communist League for not realising that ‘fifteen, twenty or fifty years’ of civil war lay between the proletariat and the establishment of its dictatorship (FERNBACH ‘Introduction’, p 58). Another oddity in this text is the care which Marx takes to relate his intellectual autobiography, in a way which he does nowhere else – certainly not in the most comparable work, Capital Vol I.

These oddities are explained by the fact that Marx was desperate to get something, anything, published in Germany in order to establish there a literary and political presence and steal a march on his rival, Ferdinand Lassalle. He faced the problem of a Prussian censorship which could impose imprisonment of up to two years for ‘anyone who incited one class of the population to hatred and contempt of other classes’. (PRINZ ‘Motive’, p 438). His solution was to present a book which was ‘both erudite and politically bland’ (PRINZ ‘Motive’, p 445). The function of the biographical sketch at the beginning of the Preface was to tell the Prussian authorities, who obviously knew of his revolutionary past, that he was now a scholarly author and respectable journalist. The body of the A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy must have puzzled the censors no end – where was the dangerous revolutionary in those precise, pedantic conceptual evolutions!? The effect of the Preface itself was to sound:

strangely, abstract, remote, recondite, yet reassuring .. [nowhere] is the ugly word ‘class’ ever used, nor is there any hint that in the ‘social revolution’ violence may play a part (PRINZ ‘Motive’, p 449)

Why, if Prinz’s paper is so explosive of the status of this canonical text (and with it the centrality of the base/superstructure model), has it not been more noticed? The academic commentator on Marx, David McLellan briefly mentions it, and remarks that:

This view [i.e. ‘that the preface was written solely with a view to getting Marx’s book past the censor’] seems to me untenable, but shows the sort of considerations that have to borne in mind when commenting on such a text’.

(McLELLAN Grundrisse, footnote 3 in his Introduction.The Paladin edition of two years later repeats this.)

McLellan gives no argument as to why this view is mistaken, just the banal ‘seems to me untenable’. Actually, there is a very simple explanation for the ignoring of the argument that 1859 Preface not be taken seriously: It was in the interests of the Stalinist state, its foreign ambassadors (the parties of the Third International, such as the Communist Party of Great Britiain) and academics to de-emphasise the notion of surplus-extraction and displace this by the anodyne notion of the mode of production (MEIKLE ‘Marxism’, p 150-1).

The concept of mode of production does not necessarily carry critical, revolutionary implications; the notion of surplus extraction does carry these implications. That text which is the provenance of the cosy base/superstructure metaphor, was concocted by Marx in order to smuggle his name and reputation past the censor. It is wonderfully fitting that a text composed with the police in mind became so central in the political culture of the European Stalinist parties, which were a PR front for the Stalinist state. It is even more fitting that this tradition is now continued by academic sociologists: These guys are the HR front for the despotism of the megacorps, the ‘human face’ of the Iron Heel.


CARVER Marx & Engels: Terrell Carver, Marx & Engels – The Intellectual Relationship, Wheatsheaf Books, 1983

FERNBACH ‘Introduction’: David Fernbach, Introduction to Karl Marx, Political Writings Vol 1, Penguin, 1981

MARX/ENG German: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, ed. C J Arthur, Lawrence and Wishart, 1970

McLELLAN Grundrisse: David McLellan, Marx’s Grundrisse, Macmillan, 1971

MEIKLE ‘Marxism’: Scott Miekle, ‘Marxism and the Necessity of Essentialism’ – review of Ste. Croix’s, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Critique 16, 1983

PRINZ ‘Motive’: Arthur M Prinz, ‘Background and Ulterior Motive of Marx’s “Preface” of 1859’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol XXX No 3, July-September 1969

THOMPSON ‘Peculiarities’: E P Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’, in his The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, Merlin Press, 1978


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