Sociology of Culture: Marx’s Theory on Base and Superstructure essay

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Sociology of Culture: Base and Superstructure

In the journal "Analytical Marxism," the author contends that the total sum of production relations in a given society is said to constitute economic structure and the foundation. The economic structure is also known as the superstructure while the foundation is the base (Cohen, 1986).

In the preface “Critique of Political Economy,” Karl Marx describes the superstructure as political and legal. The state and legal institutions of the society are included in superstructure. Either other institutions are customarily located in it albeit controversially. Cohen, 1986 indicates that production relations correspond to development level of productive forces, which in turn give rise to the establishment on which superstructure rises. Some critics had troubles separating base and superstructure as well as a huge number of Marxists faced the confusion over the interpretation of Marx’s theory. Karl Marx did not make a clear distinguish between these two terms. In fact, he included two distinctions in his Critique; the distinction between the relation of products and the forces of production; and the distinction between social relations and production variable (Williams, 1984).

Cohen, 1986 states that the ‘base’ is a combination of forces and relations of production. He considers that forces of production are dynamic while relations of production – static function. Moreover, the base is understood as forces and relations of production i.e. the technical division of labor, as well as work conditions between employer and employee and property relations. Such associations that determine different ideas and relationships in human society describe the superstructure. Superstructure always takes an active part in society and Marx as a dominant aspect considers the economic base. Marx’s ideas of base and superstructure are used as a fundamental concept for the analysis of any society. Karl Marx argues that the economic relations of production within the society may determine the forms of the state and social consciousness. He claims that minimal variations in the forces of production correspond to diminutive, increasing changes in the association within human society. Traditional Marxists determine the term ‘base’ as a material reality and the ‘superstructure’ as is considered as social and intellectual phenomena (Williams, 1984).

Division between the Base and Superstructure

Marx made two divisions: the forces of production make pressure on the existing relations of production while those come into conflict with the existing superstructure. Karl Marx made a division between civil society as the economic base and political society as a political superstructure. Nevertheless, there are some common groups, which belong to base and superstructure. Superstructure consists of the ideological relations, views and institutions as well as religion, education, art, law, government, culture, literature, science, government, media, work environment and so on. Base may consist of capitalism, socialism, feudalism. In addition, it may include gender and age role and even family organization. Base determines the superstructure; however, superstructure also has an influence upon the base. Base and superstructure describe social relations as a total system. In this system, material relations represent the base, the foundation of society while the political and ideological relations represent the superstructure. Marx considers the ideology as a passive element that is a part of the superstructure (Engels, 1980).

Relations between Base and Superstructure

In the year 1989, Cohen considered the question whether the economic structure (base) could be distinguished from the superstructure. One of the main misconceptions is that many people think that distinction between the base and superstructure is a distinction between two sets of institutions with economic institution, ideological, and political among others. The relation between base and superstructure is not of a contradiction. It is considered a mistake to take the superstructure as a normative reflection of the economic base. These two terms are not only opposite but also mutually dependent.  Connection between rights and relations of production is consistent with their interaction. The distinction between base and superstructure can be constructed without a great deal of direct textual evidences.

Cohen’s View on Base and Superstructure

In his journal, Cohen explains his view on the Marx’s theory. Cohen in his distinction between the base and superstructure looked these two terms in a shallow perspective. He argues that the economic basis of society is just the structure of the social relations of production. However, many Marxists claim that the economic basis of society includes both relations of production and productive forces. Cohen also narrowly describes a superstructure as a political and legal system of society, whereas others think that superstructure includes all non-economic institutions and parties (Hunt, 1998). The broad views over the superstructure include economic and non-economic institutions that make the connection between base and superstructure clear and precise. At the same time, Cohen’s view shows definite, casual connection between the relations of production and the legal and political system of society. However, we should understand that social relations of production could not be separated from legal institutions and parties. Cohen considers that production relations are components of economic structure. He separates superstructure from the economic structure but considers law as a part of the superstructure. Cohen claims that the economic structure may be considered as free of all super structural encumbrances. He tries to conceive the economic structure independently of the superstructure.


This research shows different views of the Marx’s idea of base and superstructure. Many researchers are still arguing on the correct variant of these terms, from which components base and superstructure consist of and what the relations between these two parts of society. Still we may observe various explanations and different examples of these ideas.

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