Base and Superstructure and the Socialist Perspective*

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. — Karl Marx, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy (1859)

I. What is to be the base over which a corresponding socialist superstructure may rise?

The assumption that the periodically intensified chronic crisis of overproduction marked by increasing manifestations of parasitism and decay would eventuate in proletarian ascendancy (rather than in “the mutual destruction of the contending classes”), just as the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie resulted from the transformation of labor power into a commodity, has not been validated by history in the century-and-a-half since the promulgation of the Communist Manifesto.

That fact cannot be attributed to a lack of heroic revolutionary bids for working class ascendancy. Yet, even though those mighty efforts have failed, they provide us with one valuable lesson, one that has not been sufficiently studied. Marx and Engels themselves wrote that “the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat” (Communist Manifesto), apparently assuming that the conquest of state power would clear away the fetishism of commodities, whereunder the relations between persons take the form of the relation between their products, and usher in a rational order of social relationships. Or, consider Lenin’s slogan, “Soviet power plus electrification equals communism!”1 The essence of that concept is that a capture of state power, together with the necessary instruments of production, would provide the basis of a socialist society. After the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in Russia, Lenin declared, “We shall now proceed to build the Socialist order!” But it was not to be; instead, beset by enemies in all directions and lacking elementary resources and technical personnel, the Bolsheviks embarked upon what would prove to be the irretrievably slippery slope into bourgeois habits of administration and production in the hopeless expectation of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat over a population ninety per cent peasantry.

The lesson to be learned is that, while the seizure of state power may bring beneficial results “land reform, ending a war, and the overthrow of a colonial regime — yet it is no short-cut to socialism.

In Europe, the bourgeoisie, was able to overthrow the feudal order only because their mode of production had developed in the womb of the old order until it could emerge to claim hegemony over the given society. In short, they proved that the wage-labor/capital relation of production was irresistible by the order based on the serf/feudal lord relation of production. The seizure of power was the outcome of the development of this novel relation of production; not the other way around. In like manner, the basis of the necessary socialist relationship of production must be defined and developed within the womb of the capitalist order before the gravediggers of capitalism can become the builders of socialist society.

But precisely how is that relation of production to be defined? Like the historical succession of dialectical opposites — slave and master, serf and feudal lord, wage worker and capitalist — the base of socialism, over which the socialist superstructure will rise, must also be a dialectical unity of opposites: that of the individual and the collective. And, after the fashion of the bourgeois revolution, the revolutionary theory and practice of that new base must2 develop in the womb of bourgeois society. But unlike the blind, blundering, hesitant manner of the bourgeois revolutions, this development of the base for socialism, benefiting from Marxist historical materialist insights, will be a preconceived, conscious, foresighted process.

The collective is a group of individuals who are ready and willing to join in a common purpose, even though each individual knows that the effort will most certainly require a subordination of some degree of individual differences in a common interest. Yet the basic constitutional vitality of the collective depends upon the tension between the individual and the collective. Inherently, therefore, the most difficult problem for collectives becomes that of dealing with the individual deviation. Not every individual deviation serves to advance the cause of the collective; yet it is in the nature of the collective that every step in progress begins with an individual deviation. (Indeed such deviation may be seen as a necessary attribute of leadership.) It follows as a corollary that one test of a good collective is not how many differences it can overcome, but how few it must overcome in order to minimize the frequency of those instances in which the unity of opposites becomes the opposite of unity.

II. What does this fundamental concept of base and superstructure imply for the day-to-day struggles, implicitly or explicitly directed against capitalism, whether in the form of resistance to the present-day worldwide absolute impoverishment, disguised as “globalization” and “austerity,” or in the form of working-class cooperative enterprises?

In answer to this question, let us apply the advice offered by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto: First, “In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, [Communists] … bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat.” Second, “In the various stages of development which the struggle… has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

First, this means grasping the rudimentary fact of the centrality of the struggle against white supremacism, the historic Achilles heel of democratic and socialist movements in the United States. Secondly, whatever the anti-capitalist issues in which particular collectives, including political parties, may be engaged, and despite setbacks they may encounter, they can take courage in knowing that the realization of the collective as a dialectical unity of opposites — of individual and collective — is the building of the base of a socialist society, whatever may be the precipitating events that usher in the ascendancy of the working class.


*Notes for a presentation at the Conference on “How Class Works,” held at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, June 10-12, 2004.

1. Speaking at the Eighth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, December 1920.

2. Because of the eternal unity of opposites — of consumption and production.

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