The concepts of 'base' and 'superstructure' are absolutely essential to Karl Marx's theory of history. They form the fundamental metaphor that is the basis of Marx's own theory, and is crucial in understanding later Marxist writers. My purpose in this writeup is to briefly discuss the meaning of Marx's metaphor, and then consider a major difficulty that it poses for his overall theory of history. The problem is: if the economic base is not the exclusive causal force in history, then does Marx's theory of history become trivial because of the impossibility of defining the relationship of base and superstructure?

Does the economic base have an exclusive causal role?

Callinicos defines the economic base as constituting both the forces and the relations of production; Cohen limits it to the relations of production (Callinicos, 1987: 175; Cohen, 2000: 216). For my purposes it is sufficient to speak rather vaguely of 'the economic' without strictly delineating it. The primary assertion of Marx's theory of history is that the economic is the fundamental causal force in history (Marx and Engels, 1974: 48-49, 57-60; Marx, 1996: 159-161; Ball, 1991: 128).

There is some controversy about how to define the superstructure (Elster, 1986: 114-115; Callinicos, 1987: 174; Cohen, 2000: 216-217). Again, it is not necessary to attempt a precise definition, but to point out that any definition of the superstructure includes politics, religion and the law. Is it correct, then, that Marx’s theory of history asserts that these have no causal influence?

Firstly, it should be noted that something does not have to be the fundamental cause in order to be a cause in history. In the example of the First World War that Professor Howell used on his seminar on Marx, one might consider the diplomatic situation of Europe, for instance, to be the fundamental cause of the war (Howell, 2004). This does not mean that the murder of the crown prince of Austria-Hungary was not a cause of the war. It did lead to the crisis which culminated in the war, and thus, however superficially, was a cause of the war. It was simply a less fundamental one than the diplomatic situation. In the same way, it is necessary to distinguish causes from fundamental causes when considering Marx's theory of history. Marx acknowledges that the superstructure is an important causal factor, but asserts that the economic base is the fundamental causal influence.

The classic exposition of Marx's theory of history is the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. Even here, Marx never says that the economic base determines the superstructure. He writes:

In the social production of their lives men enter into relations that are specific, necessary and independent of their will … The totality of these relations of production forms the economic structure of society, the real basis from which rises a legal and political superstructure … The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life-process generally (my italics). (Marx, 1996: 159-160)

The terms Marx uses are ‘rise from’ and ‘condition’. Now, if the economic base ‘gives rise’ to the superstructure, this does not exclude the latter from having a causal influence in history. In fact, this leaves it open to have an influence on the base itself. What the superstructure cannot do is arise without the economic base. Furthermore, the base ‘conditions’ the superstructure once it has come into existence. I understand this as a continuing influence on the superstructure one it has arisen from the base. One way of defining this is presented by Callinicos, who maintains that the economic base conditions the superstructure by limiting developments in it (Callinicos, 1983b: 97).

Not only did Marx think that it was theoretically possible for the superstructure to exert causal influence in history, he affirmed that this actually happened. He writes:

… this is all very true for our own times, in which material interests are preponderant, but not for the Middle Ages, dominated by Catholicism, nor Athens and Rome, dominated by politics … One thing is clear: the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part. (quoted in Callinicos, 1987: 173)

Below I discuss this passage further with reference to Althusser’s interpretation of Marx’s theory. For now let it suffice to point out that the passage demonstrates that Marx believed the superstructure had a crucial causal role.

I have established that Marx’s theory of history does not attribute an exclusive causal role to the economic base. It is therefore beyond the scope of this essay to consider whether doing so would render it false.

The primary thrust of Marx’s theory of history is that the economic base is, in some sense, the fundamental causal influence in history. But in what sense? What does the primacy of the economic base mean, if it is not the exclusive causal influence; i.e. does the admission of superstructural factors as causal influences lead to an impossibility of defining the role of the base? If so, then Marx’s theory of history is trivial since its fundamental assertion is meaningless.

It should be noted with Balibar that in the passages usually cited the concepts of base and superstructure

... have no other function than to indicate where ... Marx is not going to go on this occasion; they do not therefore constitute a knowledge of these levels and their mutual relations ... (Althusser & Balibar, 1970: 206)

Marx did not attempt a precise definition of the relationship of base and superstructure himself. I do not think that this in itself makes his theory of history trivial. 'Marx's theory of history' needs to be conceived of rather broadly here, including not only what Marx himself said on the subject but also possible elaborations by others on his own discussions. In the following section, I present two such elaborations which include both base and superstructure as causal influences, but maintain the primacy of the former.

Determination 'in the last instance'

Althusser argues that the economic base is determinant ‘in the last instance’ (Althusser & Balibar, 1970: 216-224; Rigby, 1998: 194-199; Callinicos, 1983a: 91; 1). This leaves considerable scope for the superstructure to exert influence. Althusser’s view is essentially contained in Marx’s assertion that the middle ages could not live on Catholicism (Althusser & Balibar, 1970: 217; Rigby, 1998: 196). In a particular epoch, the economic base may not be dominant. The middle ages were dominated by religion and antiquity by politics. I.e., they were dominated by superstructural phenomena. But, "it is the economic conditions of the time that explain why here politics and there Catholicism played the chief part" (Marx, quoted in Althusser & Balibar, 1970: 217). The economic base determines which factor is dominant in a society. The slave economy made politics dominant in ancient Athens, the feudal economy made Catholicism dominant in medieval Europe and the capitalist economy has made the economy itself dominant in modern times.

Althusser is open to the criticism that he bases his whole theory on one quotation from a footnote (Callinicos, 1987: 174). This is perhaps unfair since Althusser simply elaborates on what Marx left unanswered. But is Althusser's interpretation compatible with Marx's?

I think Althusser does make a bit too much of Marx's "obiter dictum" (Callinicos, 1987: 174). The fundamental assertion of historical materialism, that the economic is the fundamental causal factor in history, becomes nothing but a "law about laws" (Shaw, 1978: 69). This ignores Marx's assertion in the Preface that the economic base conditions the superstructure (Marx, 1996: 160). The base does not simply determine which factor in society is dominant, it also exerts an active influence on the superstructure.

Althusser presents an interesting reading of Marx, but his interpretation is incompatible with Marx's theory. I therefore reject Althusser's theory as a solution to my problem. However, Althusser's account does suggest that it is solvable. For the solution, I turn to Cohen.

The superstructure functionally explained

Cohen argues that the reason the superstructure arises is that it supports the economic base (Cohen, 2000). For example, the rise of Protestantism in 16th century Europe is explained by the favourable effect it had on promoting the capitalist relations of production which were being formed at the time (Cohen, 2000: 279; Rigby, 1998: 289-294).

Cohen's argument seems almost a rational choice one. Protestantism, for instance, is adopted by the nascent bourgeoisie because it furthers their economic interests. Cohen does not make this explicit with regard to Protestantism, but it is clear in his example of the English ruling class in the 17th century. He argues that the ruling class embraced the Anglican church because they saw this as the only chance to continue controlling the state (Cohen, 2000: 290). As I point out below, the state essentially strengthens the relations of production in a society, so the example might be further elaborated as showing that the English ruling class embraced the church to further their economic interests. The same could be applied to the example about the rise of Protestantism. This is the sense in which the superstructure is functionally explained. Laws, religions and other superstructural phenomena are embraced by the current or future ruling class since they suit their economic interests; i.e. "Bases ... get the superstructures they need because they need them ... (my italics)" (Cohen, 2000: 233).

Cohen's explanation clearly does away with the vulgar Marxist notion that the economic base is the only causal force in history (Ball, 1991: 128; Shaw, 1978: 66-67; Callinicos, 1983b: 96-97). The superstructure has significant causal influence. But Cohen does assert the primacy of the economic base, and provides a clear explication of the relationship between base and superstructure. The superstructure comes into existence in order to serve the base; indeed, Cohen asserts that "bases need superstructures" (Cohen, 2000: 231). For instance, de facto property relations require ratification as legal property rights in order to be stable. This is the reason that the legal superstructure arises (Cohen, 2000: 231-232).

It seems indisputable that Cohen's theory is compatible with Marx's. Cohen attempts to demonstrate that Marx embraced a functionalist understanding of the relationship between base and superstructure. He cites Capital and Grundrisse:

... regulation and order are themselves indispensable elements of any mode of production, if it is to assume social stability and independence from mere chance and arbitrariness ... (quoted in Cohen, 2000: 233)
... every form of production creates its own legal relations, forms of government, etc. (quoted in Cohen, 2000: 233)

Cohen's evidence is inconclusive, to put it mildly. Neither of these quotes demonstrates that Marx thought the superstructure comes into existence because it serves the base. However, the quotes are compatible with a functionalist account. And there is at least some more conclusive textual evidence for concluding that Marx embraced functional explanation:

All epoch-making systems have as their real content the needs of the time in which they arose (my italics) (quoted in Rigby, 1998: 277)

Obviously, this does not substantiate Cohen's claim that Marx utilized functional explanation. However, this is not crucial since like Althusser, Cohen simply elaborates on what Marx left unanswered. As the quotes show, functional explanation of the superstructure is in tune with the spirit of Marx's theory. Furthermore, Marx maintains that the mainstream ideas of a society, for instance, serve the interests of the ruling class (Ball, 1991: 130-131). "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas" (Marx and Engels, 1974: 64). The prevalent ideas of a society legitimize and stabilize the relations of production of that society. Similarly, those relations are upheld by the state, since it acts in the interests of the ruling class.

The power of the modern state is merely a device for administering the common affairs of the whole bourgeois class. (Marx and Engels, 1996: 3)
... the State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests ... (Marx and Engels, 1974: 80)

This is not to assert that the ideas of a society are formed because they perform this function, or that the state comes into existence because it promotes the existing relations of production, but it is not far from it. Cohen's theory is compatible with Marx's. He therefore presents a legitimate elaboration of Marx's theory, which demonstrates the possibility of defining the primacy of the economic base while rejecting the notion that it is the exclusive causal influence.


I have argued that Marx does not attribute an exclusive causal role to the economic base. Even in the Preface, Marx leaves it open for the superstructure to exert considerable influence. In Capital, he acknowledges that this actually happens. The question then becomes: does this admission render Marx's theory of history trivial, i.e. is it possible to define the primacy of the economic base while rejecting a simple economic determinism?

I have argued that it is possible. Althusser presents one attempt to do so. His theory is ultimately incompatible with Marx's, however. The value of Althusser's theory for my discussion is that it demonstrates the possibility of at least attempting to solve my problem. I then considered Cohen's functional-explanatory interpretation of the relationship between base and superstructure, which is compatible with Marx's theory. Cohen both rejects the notion that the economic base is the exclusive causal force in history and provides a definition of its primacy. Therefore, he solves the problem.


Althusser, L. and Balibar, E. (1970) Reading Capital (London, NLB).

Ball, T. (1991) 'History: Critique and irony' in Carver, T. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Marx (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 124-142.

Callinicos, A. (1983a) Marxism and Philosophy (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Callinicos, A. (1983b) The Revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx (Bookmarks, London).

Callinicos, A. (1987) Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory (Cambridge, Polity Press).

Cohen, G.A. (2000) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Howell, D. (2004) Seminar on Marx's theory of history (York, University of York).

Marx, K. (1996) ''Preface' to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy' in Carver, T. (ed.) Marx: Later Political Writings (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 158-162.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1996) 'Manifesto of the Communist Party' in Carver, T. (ed.) Marx: Later Political Writings (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 1-30.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1974) The German Ideology: Part One (London, Lawrence & Wishart).

Rigby, S.H. (1998) Marxism and history: A critical introduction (Manchester University Press, Manchester).

Shaw, W.H. (1978) Marx's Theory of History (London, Hutchinson & Co).

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