Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory is a critical essay critic and an influential figure in the New Left, Raymond Henry Williams. In Marxist theory, capitalist society consists of two parts: the base (or substructure ) and superstructure. The base. Type: Chapter; Author(s): Williams, Raymond; Date: ; Page start: 37; Page end: 45; Web address: ?id.
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Raymond Superstrufture, who died on this day inwas one of Britain’s foremost Marxist theorists. His pioneering work was foundational for the development of cultural studies. In this essay, originally published in New Left Review injust before the publication of The Country and the Cityand included in the collection Culture and Materialismcharts some of the problems of the nascent discipline.
Raymond Williams: Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory
The essay sees Williams trying to culturl the relationship between the determined superstructure and the determining base of mechanical materialism. Any modern approach to a Marxist theory of culture must begin by considering the proposition of a determining base and a determined superstructure.
From a strictly theoretical point of view this is not, in fact, where we might choose to begin. It would be in many ways preferable if we could begin from a proposition which originally was equally central, equally authentic: It is not that the two propositions necessarily deny each other or are in contradiction.
But the proposition of base and superstructure, with its figurative element, with its suggestion of a definite and fixed spatial relationship, constitutes, at least in certain hands, a very specialized and at times unacceptable version of the other proposition. Yet in the transition from Marx to Marxism, and in the development of mainstream Marxism itself, the proposition of the determining base and the determined superstructure has been commonly held to be the key to Marxist cultural analysis.
The language of determination and even more of determinism was inherited from idealist and especially theological accounts of the world and man. He is opposing an ideology that had been insistent on the power of certain forces outside man, or, in its secular version, on an abstract determining consciousness.
There is, on the one hand, from its theological inheritance, the notion of an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent rsymond. But there is also, from the experience of social practice, a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures.
Now there is clearly a difference between a process of setting limits and exerting pressures, whether by some external force or by the inn laws of a particular development, and that other process in which a subsequent content is essentially prefigured, predicted and controlled by a pre-existing external force. Yet it is fair to say, looking at many applications of Marxist cultural analysis, that it is the second sense, the notion of prefiguration, tyeory or control, which has often explicitly or implicitly been used.
The term of relationship is then the first thing that we ln to examine in this proposition, but we have to do this by going on to look at the related terms themselves.
Now already in Marx himself, in the later correspondence of Engels, and at many points in the subsequent Marxist tradition, qualifications have been made about the determined character of certain superstructural activities. The first kind of qualification had to do with delays in time, with complications, and with certain indirect or relatively distant relationships.
The simplest notion of a superstructure, which is still by no means entirely abandoned, had been the reflection, the imitation or the reproduction of the reality of the base in the superstructure in a more or less direct way.
Positivist notions of reflection and reproduction of course directly supported this. But since in many real cultural activities this relationship cannot be found, or cannot be found without effort or even violence to the material or practice being studied, the notion was introduced of delays in time, the famous lags; of various technical complications; and of indirectness, in which certain kinds of activity in the cultural sphere—philosophy, for example—were situated at a greater distance from the primary economic activities.
That was the first stage of qualification of the notion of superstructure: The second stage was related but more fundamental, in that the process of the relationship itself was more substantially looked at. These qualifications and amendments are important. But it seems to me that what has not been looked at with equal care, is the received notion of the base.
And indeed I would argue that the base is the more important concept to look at if we are to understand the realities of cultural process. For while a particular stage of the development of production can be discovered and made precise by analysis, it is never in practice either uniform or static. There is therefore the continual possibility of the dynamic variation of these forces. And we cannot ascribe to that process certain fixed properties for subsequent deduction to the variable processes of the superstructure.
Most people marxisy have wanted to make the ordinary proposition more reasonable have thfory on refining the notion of superstructure. But I would say that each term of the proposition has to be revalued in a particular direction.
It is worth observing one further implication behind an customary definitions. The emphasis on heavy industry, even, has played a certain cultural role. Clearly what we are examining in the base is primary productive forces. Yet some very crucial distinctions have to be made here. Yet when it comes to the man who plays the piano, whether to himself cultrual to others, there is no question: Thoery piano-maker is base, but pianist superstructure.
As a way of considering cultural activity, and incidentally tbeory economics of modern cultural activity, this is very culrural a dead-end. But for any theoretical clarification it is crucial to recognize that Marx was there engaged in an analysis of a particular kind of production, that is capitalist commodity production. Now when we talk of raymomd base, and of primary productive forces, it matters very much whether we are referring, as in one degenerate form of this proposition became habitual, to primary production within the terms of capitalist economic relationships, or to the primary production of society itself, and theiry men themselves, material production and reproduction of real life.
If we have the broad thwory of productive forces, we look at the whole question of the base differently, and we are then less tempted to dismiss as superstructural, and in that sense as merely secondary, certain vital productive social forces, which are in the broad sense, from the beginning, basic.
The totality of social practices was opposed to this layered notion of a base and a consequent superstructure. This totality of practices is compatible with the notion of social being determining consciousness, but it does not understand this process in terms of a base and a superstructure. Now the language of totality has become common, and it is indeed in many ways more acceptable than the notion of base and superstructure. But with rymond very important reservation.
It is very easy for the notion of totality to empty of its essential content the original Marxist proposition. For if we come to say that society is composed of a large number of social practices which form a concrete social williqms, and if we give to each practice a certain specific recognition, adding only that they interact, relate and combine in very complicated ways, we are at one level much thheory obviously talking about reality, but we are at another level withdrawing from the claim that there is any process of determination.
And this I, for one, would be very unwilling to do. Indeed, the key question to ask about any notion of totality in cultural theory is this: For if totality is simply concrete, if it is simply the recognition of a large variety of miscellaneous basw contemporaneous practices, then it is essentially empty of any content that could be called Marxist. Superstrudture, the notion of intention, restores the key question, or rather the key emphasis.
For while it is true that any society is a complex whole of such practices, it is also true that any society has a specific organization, a specific structure, and that the principles of this organization and structure can be seen as directly related to certain social intentions, intentions by which we define the society, intentions which in all our experience have been the rule of a particular class.
And this reminds us of how much we lose if we abandon the superstructural emphasis altogether. Thus I have great difficulty in seeing processes of art and thought as superstructural in the sense of the formula as it is commonly used. These laws, constitutions, theories, ideologies, which are claimed as natural, or as having universal validity or significance, simply have to be seen as expressing and ratifying the domination bbase a particular class.
Indeed williqms difficulty of revising the formula of base and superstructure has had much to do with the perception of many militants—who have to fight such institutions and notions as well as fighting economic battles—that if these institutions and their ideologies are not perceived as having that kind of dependent and ratifying relationship, if their claims to universal validity or legitimacy are not denied and fought, then the class character of the society can no longer be seen.
And this has been the effect of some versions of totality as the description of cultural process.
SAGE Books – Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory ()
For hegemony supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely secondary or superstructural, like the weak sense of ideology, but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the limit of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure.
For if ideology were merely some abstract imposed notion, if our social and political and cultural ideas and assumptions and habits were merely the result of specific manipulation, of a kind of overt training which might be simply ended or withdrawn, then the society would be very much easier to move and to change than in practice it has ever been or is.
This notion of hegemony as deeply saturating the consciousness of a society seems to be fundamental.
And hegemony has the advantage over general notions of totality, that it at the same time emphasizes the facts of domination. Indeed I think that we have to give a very complex account of hegemony if we are talking about any real social formation. Above all we have to give an account which allows for its elements of real and constant change. We have to emphasize that hegemony is not singular; indeed that its own internal structures are highly complex, and have continually to be renewed, recreated and defended; and by the same token, that they can be continually challenged and in certain respects modified.
That is to say, it is usually very much better at distinguishing the large features of different epochs of society, as between feudal and bourgeois, or what might be, than at distinguishing between different phases of bourgeois society, and different moments within the phases: Now the theoretical model which I have been trying to work with is this.
I would say first that in any society, in any particular period, there is a central system of practices, meanings and values, which we can properly call dominant and effective. This implies no presumption about its value. All I am saying is that it is central.
In any case what I have in mind is the central, effective and dominant system of meanings and values, which are not merely abstract but which are organized and lived. That is why hegemony is not to be understood at the level of mere opinion or mere manipulation.
It is a whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and of his world. It is a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming.
It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives.
A Marxist Critique of Raymond Williams « Taimur Rahman Political Archive
But this is not, except in the operation of a moment of abstract analysis, in any sense a static system. On the contrary we can only understand an effective and dominant culture if we understand the real social process on which marxistt depends: I mean the process of incorporation. The modes of incorporation are of great social significance, and incidentally in our kind of society have considerable economic significance.
The educational institutions are usually the main agencies of the transmission of an effective raaymond culture, and this is now a major economic as well as cultural activity; indeed it is both in the same moment.
But always the selectivity is the point; the way in which from a whole possible area of past and present, certain meanings and practices are chosen for emphasis, certain other meanings and practices are neglected and excluded. Even more crucially, some of these meanings and practices are reinterpreted, diluted, or put into forms which support or at least do not contradict other elements within the effective dominant culture. The processes of education; the processes of a much wider social training within institutions like the family; the practical definitions and organisation of work; the selective tradition at an intellectual and theoretical level: If what we learn there were merely an imposed ideology, or if it were only the isolable meanings and practices of the ruling class, or of a section of the ruling class, which gets imposed on others, occupying merely the top of superstruture minds, it would be—and one would be glad—a very much easier thing to overthrow.
It is not only the depths to which this process reaches, selecting and organizing and interpreting our experience. And this can only be so, in a complex society, if it is something more substantial and more flexible than any abstract imposed ideology. Thus we have to recognize the alternative meanings and values, the alternative opinions and attitudes, even some alternative senses of the world, which can be accommodated and tolerated within a particular effective and dominant culture.
This has been much under-emphasized in our notions of a superstructure, and even in some notions of hegemony. And the under-emphasis opens the way for retreat to an indifferent complexity. In the practice of politics, for example, there are certain truly incorporated modes of what are nevertheless, within those terms, real oppositions, that are felt and fought out. Their existence within the incorporation is recognizable by the fact that, whatever the degree of internal conflict or internal variation, they do not in practice go beyond the limits of the central effective and dominant definitions.
This is true, for example, of the practice of parliamentary politics, though its internal oppositions are real. It is true about a rzymond range of practices and arguments, in any real society, which can by no means be reduced to an ideological cover, but which can nevertheless be properly analysed as in my sense corporate, if we find that, whatever the degree of internal controversy and variation, they do not exceed the limits of the central corporate definitions.
But if we are to say this, we have to think again about the sources of that which is not corporate; of those practices, experiences, meanings, values which are not part of the effective dominant culture.
We can express this in two ways. There is clearly something that we can call alternative to the effective dominant culture, tyeory there is something else that we can call oppositional, in a true sense.
Basee degree of existence of these alternative and oppositional forms is itself a matter of constant historical variation in real circumstances. In certain societies it is possible to find areas of social life in which quite real alternatives are at least left alone.
If they are made available, of course, they are part of the corporate organization.