A term imported into Marxist discourse on the authority of Karl Marx's reference to a ‘real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’, which appears in the statement of the ‘guiding thread’ for his studies contained within his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).
Since the 1960s, most of the discussion of the term has revolved around two questions: namely, ‘What is the composition of this base?’ and ‘What is its relation to the superstructure ?’ Marx himself wrote that the base comprised ‘relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society’. What has been at issue is the meaning of ‘correspond’ and the composition of the ‘relations of production’.
Earlier generations of Marxists tended to understand correspond as meaning determine, and to regard the composition of the relations of production as purely economic in the commonsense meaning of the term; that is, material production itself. By contrast, their more recent successors have not only softened the sense of determination implied by ‘correspond’, but have also reversed the direction of any determining current so that it flows from the relations to the forces of production (see, for example, the writings of Louis Althusser ). Furthermore, they have pushed the question about the nature of the relations one step back, by asking whether it is correct to suppose that economic relations in the commonsense meaning can ever be understood as purely matters of material production, when they necessarily also involve (at a minimum) both managerial power relations and ideological relations (see, for example,, The Politics of Production, 1985).
As regards the relation of the base to the superstructure, here too, earlier generations were prone to assume that the former more or less unproblematically determined the latter. Again, by contrast (and this time taking their cue from some clarificatory comments made by Marx and Engels themselves), their successors have tended to emphasize what has been termed the relative autonomy of the various aspects of the superstructure, and their capacity to react back on the base-while nevertheless still maintaining that, in Althusser's words, ‘the economic is determinant in the last instancey’. Examples here would include, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) and, The Capitalist State (1982). Needless to say, this terminology has prompted endless and acrimonious debate (mostly between Marxists and their critics but also, to a lesser extent, within Marxism itself), about how-precisely-these propositions ought to be interpreted. In other words, how much autonomy is implied by the term ‘relative’, and what (or when) is ‘the last instance’?
In a controversial defence of Karl Marx 's Theory of History(1978), the philosopher G. A. Cohen has argued that base and superstructure refer to explanans and explanandum in what was, at least in Marx's hands, a functional explanation. Although opinions vary, it is at least arguable that this puts an end to the debate about the explanatory priority of forces and relations of production, and accommodates arguments for the relative autonomy of superstructures-at least in so far as deciding what Marx meant is concerned. See also ideology ; mode of production ; social formation.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


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  • base — n Base, basis, foundation, ground, groundwork are comparable when meaning something on which another thing is reared or built or by which it is supported or fixed in place. Base may be applied to the lowest part or bottom of something without… …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • base — base·ball; base; base·less; base·lin·er; base·ly; base·man; base·ment; base·ness; de·base; de·base·ment; di·a·base; em·base; gnatho·base; gyno·base; im·base; iso·base; phal·lo·base; rheo·base; rim·base; scle·ro·base; sub·base; sur·base;… …   English syllables

  • base — base1 [bās] n. [ME < OFr bas < L basis,BASIS] 1. the thing or part on which something rests; lowest part or bottom; foundation 2. the fundamental or main part, as of a plan, organization, system, theory, etc. 3. the principal or essential… …   English World dictionary

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