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Alex Callinicos

Comments on Base and Superstructure

(Winter 1987)


From Three responses to Chris Harman’s account of base and superstructure, International Socialism 2:34, pp. 125–127.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


(i) Chris Harman sets out in his article to show that Marx’s materialist insistence on the primacy of production in social life is consistent with, indeed requires the emphasis he also places on the ‘subjective factor’ in history – conscious agency, class struggle, political leadership, and even individual initiative. Chris, in my view, is right to do so, and the broad line of his argument is correct. The disagreement between us to which he refers (p. 42, n19) is a matter of words rather than substance. In arguing that Marxists should treat the relations, and not the forces of production, as the ‘independent variable’ in explaining historical change (Marxism and Philosophy, p. 112), I was simply claiming that the extent to which, and the manner in which productive forces develop in any historical epoch depends upon the prevailing relations of production. Chris says much the same thing on pp. 17–18, even going so far as to suggest that ‘the development of the forces of production is the exception, not the norm’. Perhaps calling the relations of production the ‘independent variable’ was misleading, implying that the productive forces can have no dynamic of their own: if so, I stand corrected.

(ii) I nevertheless find some of Chris’s formulations disturbing: He argues that we should not identify production relations primarily with relations of effective control over the means of production (for simplicity’s sake property relations), as for example G.A. Cohen does in Karl Marx’s Theory of History. To do so would ignore the way in which ‘small changes in the forces of production lead to small cumulative changes in the social relations arising at the point of production, until these challenge the wider relations of society’ (p. 21). Chris’s own view of production relations is best brought out by the following passage: ‘The distinction between base and superstructure is a distinction between social relations which are subject to immediate changes with changes in the productive forces, and those which are relatively static and resistant to change’ (p. 22). So production relations are those social relations which immediately respond to changes in the productive forces.

(iii) Now this usage is starkly at odds with Marx’s. Consider this famous passage from the 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces come into conflict with the existing relations of production ... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters’ (Selected Works, Moscow edn, p. 182). Chris cites this passage on pp. 3–4, but if he is right, the relations of production are neither forms of development nor fetters of the productive forces, but are rather the latter’s social consequences. The role of fettering the productive forces is displaced onto the superstructure, those ‘social relations ... which are relatively static and resistant to change’, as the following passage makes clear: ‘Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces. How? Because of the activity of the “superstructure” in trying to stop new forms of production and exploitation that challenge the monopoly of wealth and power of the old ruling class’ (p. 14). For Chris, then, the basic contradiction of each class-divided mode of production is not, as Marx said, between the forces and relations of production, but between the productive forces and the superstructure.

(iv) Part of the reason for this divergence lies in the fact that Chris draws more heavily on The German Ideology, written in 1845–7, than he does on the set of concepts, at once richer and more precise, which Marx developed in the writings of 1857–67, and which culminate in Capital. Thus Chris seems to identify the productive forces with productive techniques: this is suggested by the fact that he regards ‘an increase in the number of journeymen working for the average master craftsman in a mediaeval city’ as a change in production relations (p. 21). But for Marx in Capital this would be a change in the labour-process, by which he means the form of social co-operation involved in direct producers with certain skills using certain means of production to produce certain use-values. Marx here identifies the productive forces with the labour-process (or rather: changes in the labour-process, and not simply in productive techniques, are usually necessary for the development of the productive forces), and contrasts it with the process of self-expansion of capital, which presupposes the separation of the direct producers from the means of production, and the extraction of surplus-value from them in the capitalist production process. As should therefore be clear, for Marx the core of production relations consists in property relations (= relations of effective control) and the form of exploitation. This is stated explicitly at a number of points. Let me give merely the most famous one: ‘The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship between rulers and ruled ... It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relationship always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret of the social structure’ (Capital, III, Moscow edn, p. 791).

(v) Are there any reasons, apart from reverence and habit, for preferring Marx’s usage to Chris’s? Yes, and they help indicate why the issue is more than a terminological dispute. Chris offers an explanation of how the production relations fetter the productive forces, namely by means of the superstructure (see passage cited in section iii above). But he does not explain why the social impulse to fetter the forces arises. The answer lies in the fact that their position within the production relations (= property relations) gives the ruling class an interest in preventing certain kinds of change, and also gives them the capacity and the material resources to try, as Chris puts it on several occasions, to ‘freeze’ the social structure. Production relations therefore explain the freezing activities which take place in the superstructure. But this means that we cannot conceive them as those ‘social relations which are subject to immediate changes in the productive forces’. Rather than passively responding to the productive forces, production relations either promote or fetter them, depending on the level of development of the productive forces. Secondly, Chris (and here he follows Cohen) conceives of the superstructure as playing an essentially conservative, stabilising role. This follows from his treatment of it as those social relations ‘which are static and resistant to change’, but it doesn’t sit well with the stress he rightly lays on the role played by ‘super-structural’ factors – ideas, parties, etc. – in promoting revolutionary change (pp. 24–42). It would seem better once again to follow Marx when he writes of ‘the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict [between the forces and relations of production] and fight it out.’ There is no implication here that ideology (and the superstructure of which it is part) necessarily play a stabilising role, freezing social relations, but only that ‘this consciousness must be explained from the con traditions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production’ (Selected Works, p. 483).

(vi) I have much more to say about historical materialism in a forthcoming book, Making History (Cambridge 1987). I don’t believe that there are any serious differences between the account of historical change sketched out in that book, and the positions taken by Chris in Base and Superstructure. I certainly think that he is absolutely right to insist on there being two basic distinctions, between the forces and relations of production and between base and superstructure, and of the priority of the first over the second distinction. My disagreement here is over certain formulations which obscure or undermine the basic thrust of his argument.


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