In Marxist theory, society consists of two parts: the base (or substructure) and superstructure. The base comprises the forces and relations of production (e.g. employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations) into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. The superstructure determines society's other relationships and ideas to comprise its superstructure, including its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state. The relation of the two parts is not strictly unidirectional, Marx and Engels warned against such economic determinism as the superstructure can affect the base. However the influence of the base is predominant.
In developing Alexis de Tocqueville's observations, Marx identified civil society as the economic base and political society as the political superstructure. Marx postulated the essentials of the base-superstructure concept in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or--this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms--with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic--in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.
Marx's "base determines superstructure" axiom, however, requires qualification:
Marx's theory of base and superstructure can be found in the disciplines of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology as utilized by Marxist scholars. Across these disciplines the base-superstructure relationship, and the contents of each, may take different forms.
Early sociologist Max Weber preferred a form of structuralism over a base and superstructure model of society in which he proposes that the base and superstructure are reciprocal in causality--neither economic rationality nor normative ideas rule the domain of society. In summarizing results from his East Elbia research he notes that, contrary to the base and superstructure model "we have become used to," there exists a reciprocal relationship between the two.
The Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci divided Marx's superstructure into two elements: political society and civil society. Political society consists of the organized force of society (such as the police and military) while civil society refers to the consensus-creating elements that contribute to cultural hegemony. Both constituents of this superstructure are still informed by the values of the base, serving to establish and enforce these values in society.
Walter Rodney, the Guyanese political activist and African historian, discussed the role of Marx's superstructure in the context of development cycles and colonialism. Rodney states that while most countries follow a developmental structure that evolves from feudalism to capitalism, China is an exception to this rule and skipped the capitalism step.
"The explanation is very complex, but in general terms the main differences between feudal Europe and feudal China lay in the superstructure - i.e. in the body of beliefs, motivations and sociopolitical institutions which derived from the material base but in turn affected it. In China, religious, educational and bureaucratic qualifications were of utmost importance, and government was in the hands of state officials rather than being run by the landlords on their own feudal estates."
By extension this means that the Marxist development cycle is malleable due to cultural superstructures, and is not an inevitable path. Rather the role of the superstructure allows for adaptation of the development cycle, especially in a colonial context.
Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich's discipline of analysis known as sex economy is an attempt to understand the divergence of the perceived base and superstructure that occurred during the global economic crisis from 1929 to 1933. To make sense of this phenomenon, Reich recategorized social ideology as an element in the base--not the superstructure. In this new categorization, social ideology and social psychology is a material process that self-perpetuates, the same way economic systems in the base perpetuate themselves. Reich focused on the role of sexual repression in the patriarchal family system as a way to understand how mass support for Fascism could arise in a society.
Contemporary Marxist interpretations such as those of critical theory criticise this conception of the base-superstructure interaction and examine how each affects and conditions the other. Raymond Williams, for example, argues against loose, "popular" usage of base and superstructure as discrete entities which, he explains, is not the intention of Marx and Engels:
So, we have to say that when we talk of 'the base', we are talking of a process, and not a state .... We have to revalue 'superstructure' towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced, or specifically-dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue 'the base' away from [the] notion[s] of [either] a fixed economic or [a] technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real, social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations, and, therefore, always in a state of dynamic process.
John Plamenatz makes two counterclaims regarding the clear-cut separation of the base and superstructure. The first is that economic structure is independent from production in many cases, with relations of production or property also having a strong effect on production. The second claim is that relations of production can only be defined with normative terms--this implies that social life and humanity's morality cannot be truly separated as both are defined in a normative sense.
A criticism[weasel words] of the base and superstructure theory is that property relations (supposedly part of the base and the driving force of history) are actually defined by legal relations, an element of the superstructure. Defenders of the theory claim that Marx believed in property relations and social relations of production as two separate entities.
Colin Jenkins provides (2014) a critique on the role of the capitalist state in the era of neoliberalism, using base and superstructure theory as well as the work of Nicos Poulantzas. Regarding developments in the United States during this era (roughly 1980-2015), Jenkins highlights the nature in which political parties and the political system itself are inherently designed to protect the economic base of capitalism and, in doing so, have become "increasingly centralized, coordinated, and synchronized over the past half-century." This, according to Jenkins, has led to a "corporate-fascistic state of being" that is challenging the equilibrium of this fragile relationship. His analysis specifically addresses the role of both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, in the United States:
It reminds us of John Dewey's claim that, 'As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.' In the US, the two-party political system has proven extremely effective in this regard. Aside from differences on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as socioeconomic issues like unemployment insurance and public assistance, both parties ultimately embrace capitalist/corporatist interests in that they both serve as facilitators for the dominant classes: The Republican Party in its role as forerunner, pushing the limits of the capitalist model to the brink of fascism; and the Democratic Party in its role as governor, providing intermittent degrees of slack and pull against this inevitable move towards a 'corporate-fascistic state of being.
Neven Sesardic agrees that the economic base of society affects its superstructure, however he questions how meaningful this actually is. While the original claim of a strong form of economic determinism was radical, Sesardic argues that it was watered down to the trivial claim that the base affects the superstructure and vice versa, something no philosopher would dispute. Thus Sesardic argues that Marx's claim ultimately amounts to nothing more than a trivial observation that does not make meaningful statements or explain anything about the real world.