Basis – Superstructure

The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows. In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely 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.

(From Karl Marx: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Preface – 1859)




Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. Ignorant louts such as Heinzen, who deny not only the struggle but the very existence of classes, only demonstrate that, for all their bloodthirsty, mock-humanist yelping, they regard the social conditions in which the bourgeoisie is dominant as the final product, the non plus ultra [highest point] of history, and that they themselves are simply the servants of the bourgeoisie, a servitude which is the more revolting, the less capable are the louts of grasping the very greatness and transient necessity of the bourgeois regime itself.

(from: letter from Karl Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer in New York; London, 5 March 1852, 28 Dean Street, Soho)




Core points: Soci(et)al Development is based on action of human beings, meaning that social science is concerned with




activity of human beings.

In dealing with their physical and social environment a process of appropriation takes place, taking increasingly the form of socialised action and – as socialised activity – enhancing (opportunities of) appropriation.

Although this means on the one hand increasing appropriation we find that with the differentiation of this process (to some extent due to increasing complexity as it is caused by socialisation itself, to a larger extent and fundamentally due to the developing structure of ownership) a process of privatisation of the product of appropriation can be found – and consequently we find the privatisation of the appropriation of the appropriation of the objective and external environment.

This necessitates to distinguish between the physical and social dimension of appropriation.

With this in mind we can look at four dimensions of appropriation, namely


appropriation as taking in possession,


as division and distribution,


as comprehension and arrangement,


and finally as utilisation.

The following figure sums up the relations for the societal structures emerging from these differentiated structures of appropriation. This graph does not refer to the underlying origins of the social differentiation. Mainly it shows that human beings are included into a complex network of relations within which they do not only act in regard of the environment and/or make use of the environment for their aims. Instead they constitute at the same time a network of relations between themselves (see e.g. EC-Integration and the Paradox of Modernity in Herrmann, P.: European Integration between Institution Building and Social Process; New York: Nova Science – the following graph is taken from this publication)




Freedom, then, is understood as insight into necessity:

Necessity is blind only insofar as it is not understood (Hegel)

Again we find the individual (private) and social dimension of freedom. As freedom of the will it is concerned with the capacity to make decisions with the knowledge of the subject. In other words, taking a more exemplifying stance: Although I cannot disregard natural laws I can, knowing about them, use them and integrate them into my own activities. – Cum grano salis, the same holds true for social laws.

Though differentiation is on the one hand basically a process that is concerned with dealing with the physical environment (see division of labour) it is on the other hand a d fundamentally social process, culminating in the structuration of society by the fundamental division between basis and superstructure.

This is fundamentally based on the approach that is derived from a critical argument with both


«mechanical materialism» à la Feuerbach and


«idealistic dialectics» à la Hegel

The fundamental principles of this dialectic approach are the following:


change from quantity into quality – qualitative leap


penetration of contradictions


negation of the negation

Defining dialectics as law of (social) development, development is a dialectical process of


sublation and



Dialectical Materialism – Quotes

"It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of being conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation. A cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes.

Fredrick Engels: Dialectics of Nature. Introduction


"Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, or motion without matter, nor can there be."


"Change of form of motion is always a process that takes place between at least two bodies, of which one loses a definite quantity of motion of one quality (e.g. heat), while the other gains a corresponding quantity of motion of another quality (mechanical motion, electricity, chemical decomposition).


"Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics (dialectical thought), is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature."

Fredrick Engels: Dialectics of Nature


But dialectical materialism insists on the approximate relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another, that from our point of view [may be] apparently irreconcilable with it, and so forth.

Vladimir Lenin: Materialism and Empirio-criticism


With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, materialism has to change its form; and after history was also subjected to materialistic treatment, a new avenue of development has opened here, too. [Ch. 2, The End of Classical German Philosophy]


"For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher."

Fredrick Engels: The End of Classical German Philosophy

Historical Materialism – Quotes

"This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production (i.e. civil society in its various stages), as the basis of all history; describing it in its action as the state, and to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. etc. arise from it, and trace their origins and growth from that basis. Thus the whole thing can, of course, be depicted in its totality (and therefore, too, the reciprocal action of these various sides on one another).


"It has not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period to look for a category [eg. measuring periods of history in accordance to certain ideas], but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice. Accordingly it comes to the conclusion that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into "self-consciousness" or transformation into "apparitions", "spectres", "whims", etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory.


"It shows that history does not end by being resolved into "self-consciousness as spirit of the spirit", but that in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character. It shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.

Karl Marx: The German Ideology. Chpt 2: Civil Society and the Conception of History


"The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature."


"Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.


"The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

Karl Marx: The German Ideology. Chpt 1: Idealism and Materialism





Compare the liberal and Marxist approach to "the social" and to "society". Look at different actors, e.g. social classes/groups, state and NGOs and the role of cohesion and conflicts in these theories.


Present and explain the fundamental laws of the dialectical approach and apply them to discuss a social policy issue which you think is relevant.