Base and Superstructure

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Essay Base and Superstructure Mechanical materialism and its aftermath The answers given to these questions lead to very different views about how society develops. At the one extreme, there is the view that the base is the forces of production, that they inevitably advance, and that this in turn leads to changes in society. Political and ideological struggle is then seen as playing no real role. Human beings are products of their circumstances, and history proceeds completely independently of their will. The outcome of wars, revolutions, philosophical arguments or what-not is always determined in advance. It would have made not one iota of difference to history if Robespierre had walked under a carriage in 1788 or if the sealed train had crashed in April 1917. This view of

Marxism is based upon a certain reading of Marx himself, in particular upon a powerful polemical passage in The Poverty of Philosophy: ‘In acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning a living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill society with an industrial capitalist.’1 It is in the years after Marx’s death that such a mechanical, determinist view of history comes to be regarded as ‘Marxist’ orthodoxy. It was during this period that Marxism came to hegemonise the German workers’ movement, and through it the Second International. But it was Marxism as seen through the eyes of Karl Kautsky, the ‘Pope

of Marxism’. For Kautsky, historical development had inevitably produced each mode of production in turn – antiquity, feudalism, capitalism – and would eventually lead to socialism. There was an ‘inevitable…adaptation of forms of appropriation to forms of production’.2 Revolutionary movements could not alter this pattern of development. Thus the Hussites of the 15th century and the revolutionary Anabaptists of the 16th century had been able to fight courageously and to present the vision of a new society; but, for Kautsky, they could not alter the inevitable development of history: ‘The direction of social development does not depend on the use of peaceful methods or violent struggles. It is determined by the progress and needs of the methods of production. If the

outcome of violent revolutionary struggles does not correspond to the intentions of the revolutionary combatants, this only signifies that these intentions stand in opposition to the development of the needs of production. Violent revolutionary struggles can never determine the direction of social development, they can only in certain circumstances accelerate their pace…’3 The task of revolutionary socialists under modem capitalism was not to try to cut short the historical process, but simply to reflect its development by carefully building up socialist organisation until capitalism was ready to turn into socialism. But, at the same time, counter-revolutionaries could not stop the onward march of the forces of production and, therefore, of historical evolution. Kautsky

insisted that ‘regression’ from more advanced to more backward forces of production never occurred.4 ‘Economic development’, said his most influential work, his introduction to the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt Programme, ‘will lead inevitably to the… conquest of the government in the interests of the [working] class’.5 Very close to Kautsky’s formulations were those of the pioneer Russian Marxist, Plekhanov. He held that the development of production automatically resulted in changes in the superstructure. There is no way human endeavour can block the development of the forces of production. ‘Social development’ is a ‘process expressing laws’.6 ‘The final cause of the social relationships lies in the state of the productive forces.’