Base and Superstructure as Ontology — Matthew Dimick

Several recent posts on Legal Form have made fascinating observations on Marx’s base-superstructure metaphor, and, more specifically, the place of law within that schema. [1] As these posts–and countless other writings on the subject–attest, the base-superstructure model presents some seemingly intractable challenges. As these posts also identify, these challenges are particularly acute for legal scholars. Think, for example, of the pointed critiques of H. B. Acton and John Plamenatz. [2] And of G. A. Cohen’s attempted rebuttal. [3] Marx defines the economic base as the unity of forces of production and relations of production, while law, politics, and culture are part of the superstructure. Yet as Acton and Plamenatz point out, it is impossible to describe relations of production except in legal terms. This poses a vicious problem of circularity: how can the economic base explain the legal superstructure if the base itself is already defined in legal terms?

This problem is related to a bigger one. After decades of attack from the post-structuralist and cultural left, Marxists (correctly) shrink from a reductionist–specifically, an economistic–interpretation of the base-superstructure metaphor, one in which the superstructure is nothing but an epiphenomenal reflection of the base. But if we accept any other model, in which the superstructure would also be allowed to determine features of the economic base causally, not only do we introduce the problem of circularity just described but we also lose the idea of economic primacy, the idea that the economic base has some kind of primacy with respect to the superstructure, an idea to which Marx remained committed throughout his work. It seems that we can’t have our cake and eat it too: we can have non-reductionism or economic primacy, but we can’t have both.

Should we just give up on the base-superstructure metaphor? It is tempting to do so, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has advised [4], based as it is on a few paragraphs in the “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, an early and partial version of Marx’s Capital. [5] But we cannot avoid the metaphor, even if we wanted to, because as just noted Marx never departed in his work from at least some version of the idea of economic primacy, and this is what the metaphor expresses. As China Miéville recognizes in his Between Equal Rights, “the base-superstructure metaphor is no more than a statement of materialism”. [6]

In this post I argue that these challenges can be resolved if we think about the base-superstructure metaphor not in causal terms but in ontological terms. I contend that the economic base has ontological primacy, which preserves the idea of economic primacy, but not causal primacy, which likewise preserves a rich set of dialectical causal possibilities (in which the economic structure may be causal for the law, for example, but the law can also be causal for the economic structure). This idea of ontological primacy is compatible with but also (and this is equally important) distinct from ideas of structural causation, or structural “limits” or “pressures”, which have also been proposed to address this challenge. I illustrate these ideas with examples culled from Marx and Engels, giving special attention to legal examples. I also show how Marx inherits his ontological language from his philosophical predecessors and heroes, in particular Aristotle and Hegel. I conclude by suggesting that the difference between ontology and causality ought to be understood as dialectical moments within a larger concept of explanation.

* * *

The base-superstructure metaphor is almost always described in causal terms. Raymond Williams’ analysis of the word “determination” in his discussion of the base-superstructure metaphor presumes causal relationships. [7] Although Wood rejects the base-superstructure metaphor, there can be little doubt that she regards it as a (failed) causal model, as her preferred solution of ascribing “a determinative primacy to class struggle [i.e. relations of production]” indicates. [8] In Cohen’s technological-determinist interpretation of the base-superstructure model, the productive forces explain relations of production functionally, and relations of production explain the superstructure functionally. Strictly speaking, functional explanation is not causal explanation, but falls squarely within a positivist mode of explanation. But this does not save Cohen’s model from any of the problems identified previously. [9] 

However, there is in fact very little causal language in the “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”. [10] Relations of production are “appropriate” to a given level of productive forces. The superstructure “arises” from the economic base–a foundation which, while necessary, hardly determines anything about the structure built on top of it. Social consciousness “corresponds” to the economic structure. The mode of production “conditions” the social, political, and intellectual life of society. Social transformation occurs through “conflict” between contending classes. The following sentence is particularly telling: “The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production … but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism.” This is a strange way to write if one wanted simply to say that productive forces determine relations of production causally; such language is better interpreted in an ontological fashion, in the way I will describe shortly. The most causal language one finds in the “Preface” is the famous statement: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” But “determines” is from the German Bestimmung, which has a far broader usage than simple causal determination, as those familiar with Hegel’s Logic will recognize.

The absence of causal language in the “Preface” might tempt us into thinking that Marx rejected causality as such. Indeed, David Harvey has also noted recently that there is very little causal language in the “Preface”. But then, if the base-superstructure metaphor is not a causal model, what is it? Harvey says that the model should be “viewed dialectically, not causally”. [11] I would be happier if Harvey had said “dialectical causality, not positivist causality”, since there is no evidence that Marx rejected causality categorically, especially in his body of work outside the “Preface”. In any case, Harvey simply embraces the allegation of circularity without ever acknowledging the problem this poses for economic primacy, let alone resolving it.

The way out of this impasse is to adopt the idea that the economic base has ontological, not causal, primacy with respect to the superstructure. By ontological I refer to statements like “x is a condition of possibility for the existence of y“, as distinct from “x is a cause of or caused y“. When considered ontologically, we say that only certain kinds of political, legal, and ideological superstructures are possible within a given economic base or mode of production.

Certainly, the superstructure can be ontologically necessary for the base. My proposal has no difficulty saying that a given legal system constitutes or defines or is necessary for the existence of a mode of production. But saying that the superstructure is ontologically necessary for the base is different from saying that the base is not only (likewise) ontologically necessary for the superstructure, but also has ontological primacy with respect to the whole. Given agents’ (historically conditioned) needs and interests, and the level of development of the productive forces, only certain relations of production are possible. Indeed, historical materialism has only identified a handful. The “canonical” modes are given in the “Preface”: tribal, ancient, feudal, capitalist, and a future communist mode of production. [12] Debate continues over the so-called “Asiatic mode of production”. [13] Considered in their autonomy, however, there are very few, possibly no, limits on the possible forms of ideological and political superstructures. There is thus an asymmetry that accords primacy to the base: the economic base constrains the set of possible superstructures in a way that the superstructure does not constrain the set of possible economic bases.

We can lend precision to these claims by putting them in Hohfeldian terms. We owe to Hohfeld the idea that legal categories such as property can be analyzed in terms of composites of jural relations (rights, privileges, powers, etc.). [14] For instance, a fee simple owner has the right that others not enter or destroy her land, privileges to enter and use the land herself, and powers to alienate or extinguish her interests in the land. The realization that these legal categories and relations are infinitely divisible in a conceptual sense fools us into the false belief that any conceivable allocation of entitlements is possible. But upon reflection, one realizes that this is not the case. Would a society be reproducible–or, in Marx’s terms, perpetuate itself in existence–if we left current capitalist relations of production in place, but taxed all income at one hundred percent and then redistributed the proceeds to all citizens in equal, lump-sum amounts? What if all enterprises were owned by the state, but in a context in which all but a single, authoritarian party was banned from seeking political office? What if we gave all children under the age of eight residing in particular jurisdiction, the state of Wyoming say, the rights to control, but neither to alienate those rights nor to receive the profits or income from, all public and private corporations in the United States with more than fifty employees? All of these are just Hohfeldian reshufflings of rights and powers, and their legal correlatives. But none would be reproducible over any historically appreciable period of time–the former Stalinist regimes included, their implosion after only two generations of merely extensive economic growth proof of that claim. When considered in this way, it quickly becomes apparent that a pure, autonomous legal analysis cannot even “get off the ground” without acknowledging its socio-economic content. [15]

Thus, not just any normative, legal, or political relations are possible, only those that forces and relations of production make possible. It is in this ontological, not causal, sense that the economic base has primacy. Marx and Engels describe the base-superstructure relationship in these terms on a number of occasions. For example, Engels writes as follows:

Since the historical appearance of the capitalist mode of production, the appropriation by society of all the means of production has often been dreamed of, more or less vaguely, by individuals, as well as by sects, as the ideal of the future. But it could become possible, could become a historical necessity, only when the actual conditions for its realisation were there. Like every other social advance, it becomes practicable, not by men understanding that the existence of classes is in contradiction to justice, equality, etc., not by the mere willingness to abolish these classes, but by virtue of certain new economic conditions. The separation of society into an exploiting and an exploited class, a ruling and an oppressed class, was the necessary consequence of the deficient and restricted development of production in former times. So long as the total social labour only yields a produce which but slightly exceeds that barely necessary for the existence of all; so long, therefore, as labour engages all or almost all the time of the great majority of the members of society–so long, of necessity, this society is divided into classes. [16]

To paraphrase, what Engels says here is that social relations of communism or socialism can only come into being when the productive forces have reached a certain level. The conditions–a certain stage in the growth of productive forces–do not cause communism. In a certain sense, the envisioning of communist social relations actually precedes communism itself. Nevertheless, the realization of communist production relations becomes possible only when the productive forces have reached a critical stage. Productive forces do not cause communism. Rather, the productive forces are a condition for the existence of communism. The same can be said for previous historical epochs. Widely employed wage labour, for instance, which is more costly than serf or slave labour, is only possible when the productive forces have reached a critical level.

For another example, we can turn to Marx’s analysis of value in Capital, where he seeks to resolve the mystery of the equivalence between commodities that is established in exchange. What is the common basis that makes it possible, in his famous example, for forty yards of linen to be exchanged for two coats? Marx observes that Aristotle had posed the same exact question without nevertheless solving it. He writes:

However, Aristotle himself was unable to extract this fact, that, in the form of commodity-values, all labour is expressed as equal human labour and therefore as labour of equal quality, by inspection from the form of value, because Greek society was founded on the labour of slaves, hence had as its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour-powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion. This however becomes possible only in a society where the commodity-form is the universal form of the product of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of commodities. [17]

In this example, it is a certain idea–labour time as the basis of commodity values–that only becomes possible once certain relations of production have become established widely. Again, it is not that certain production relations cause particular ideas to appear. It was certainly not the failure of “Aristotle’s genius” that prevented the idea from coming into existence. It was only the “historical limitation inherent in the society in which he lived” that prevented this discovery from taking place. [18] Thus, capitalist relations of production are a condition for the possibility of realizing the labour theory of value.

This idea of ontological primacy is quite different from the kind of structural causation that is usually invoked to defend a non-reductionist base-superstructure model. Various versions of this idea exist. One version of structural causation is the idea that structures of various kinds place “limits”, or “pressures”, in the way of otherwise (i.e. relatively) autonomous causal processes. [19] For example, it is often suggested that the structural dependence of the state on capital restricts–but does not uniquely determine–the kinds of social policies than can be adopted within capitalist societies. The main difference from an ontological claim is that structural causation still has the same temporal form of any other causal relationship. Indeed, structural variables in multi-variable social science have no different status than any other kind of causal variable. An ontological condition does not have this temporal form because it places limits on what is possible, including possibilities that may lie in the future.

Furthermore, structural causation also has the same directional form as a reductionist base-superstructure model: there is still a determining base and a determined structure, even if the base does not uniquely determine the superstructure. This means that structural causality cannot address the issue of circularity–or, to put it another way, structural causality is non-dialectical. Yet it is clear that Marx believed such a reverse causal direction, from superstructure to base, to be possible. Consider part eight of Capital on primitive accumulation:

The capital-relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale. The process, therefore, which creates the capital-relation can be nothing other than the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labour; it is a process which operates two transformations, whereby the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-labourers. So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as “primitive” because it forms the pre-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital. [20]

Here Marx is referring to processes–I would say causal processes. Moreover, he is talking about two distinct processes, not just the two transformations into capital and wage labour. The first is the process whereby direct producers are separated from the means of subsistence and production; the second is the process whereby that separation, the capital-wage labour relation, is reproduced and maintained, once capital “stands on its own feet”. As Marx details elsewhere, that second process is largely economic and operates through capital’s repeating cycles of production and circulation. The first process is something else entirely. As he discusses in the chapters that comprise the part on primitive accumulation in Capital, this first process occurs largely through the state and law. In chapter twenty-eight, for example, Marx discusses the “Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated”, by which acts of parliament in England established maximum wage rates. In addition to other legislative and political processes (e.g. enclosure, colonial imperialism), legal wage-suppression was a substantial inducement to the creation of a capital-wage labour relation that reproduced itself and expanded, “standing on its own feet”:

In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the “natural laws of production”, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. It is otherwise during the historical genesis of capitalist production. The rising bourgeoisie needs the power of the state, and uses it to “regulate” wages, i.e. to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. This is an essential aspect of so-called primitive accumulation. [21]

Thus, law and the state are crucial and essential elements in the creation of capitalism. There are several different “moments” of primitive accumulation, writes Marx. “But they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten … the transition [from feudalism to capitalism]. Force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.” [22]

As these remarks make clear, the genesis of capitalism is in large measure a process by which the law and the state causally create new (economic) relations of production. This is incompatible with any notion of structural causality which, despite the looser language of “limits” and “pressures”, still presupposes that the causal arrow runs from economy to superstructure. One could object and say that it is still economic interests that drive these legal processes. But this misunderstands the nature of the base-superstructure metaphor. The economic base is defined not in terms of interests, but in terms of forces and relations of production, the mode of production. Indeed, antagonistic class interests are just as often expressed in the superstructure, where people “become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”. [23] Instead, if we accept the ontological interpretation of the metaphor, we have no problem acknowledging a causal process that goes from superstructure to base. The primacy of the economic base consists in the fact that it constrains the set of possible superstructures that could exist, not that causation needs always to run from base to superstructure.

Further support for the ontological interpretation of the base-superstructure metaphor comes from remembering the influence of Marx’s philosophical heroes and predecessors. Consider Hegel and Aristotle. The Science of Logic is, above all, Hegel’s theory of ontology. We know that Marx was reading the Logic when he wrote the Grundrisse, and its impact on that work is undeniable. Think, for instance, of the Grundrisse’s famous opening passages on method. The central example Marx returns to over and over is “production”, and more importantly “capitalist production”, and what it is–not the cause-effect relations established by capitalism, but capitalist production’s identity. [24] The influence of Hegel’s identity-difference dialectic, part of Hegel’s objective logic of essence, is clear in Marx’s answer to this ontological question. [25] It is thus absolutely clear that Marx is concerned with much more than just the causal mechanisms operating within capitalism. If we also recall that “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” was published a year after Marx drafted the Grundrisse, then it should not surprise us that Marx was also thinking in ontological, not causal, terms when he conceived the base-superstructure metaphor.

One can also find traces of Aristotle in the “Preface”. In the Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle presents his account of cause, asserting that there are four distinct and irreducible types of causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. [26] For Aristotle, each of these types of causes may enter into the explanation of something, whether natural or social. None is usually sufficient by itself to account for something–Aristotle is a causal pluralist. The material cause is that out of which something is explained. Think of the “material forces of production”, the machinery, tools, buildings, raw materials, and so on necessary for the production of goods and services proper as well as the production and reproduction of society. The formal cause is more difficult to define, but think of the shape of something, its form, or the “account of what-it-is-to-be”. It is not stating things too strongly, I believe, to say that Marx equates the superstructure with formal cause. Consider this passage from the “Preface”: “[I]t is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production … and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms … .” [27] Indeed, this interpretation fits extremely well with the idea that a mode of production has a “legal expression”, or is constituted or defined–is identified as what it is to be–by the law or normative language.

The efficient cause is what we more commonly think of as “cause”, and is the way I have been using “cause” in this post: the proximate cause, a cause-and-effect relationship, or the cause of something’s change or rest. The final cause is the purpose, goal, or telos of something. These last two types of cause are less prominent in the “Preface”, if not obscured or entirely absent. The issue of teleology in Marx is an enormously controversial one, and it is, of course, possible to interpret teleologically Marx’s claims about different “epochs marking progress in the economic development of society” and of the “prehistory of human society … clos[ing] with [the bourgeois] social formation”. [28] Even so, given an Aristotelian interpretation, it might be possible to embrace a human action- or agency-centred telos, while rejecting a society- or history-centred telos (e.g. as in a positivist, technological determinist reading of the “Preface”). This point deserves much further discussion than I can give it here. In the case of efficient cause, its absence in the “Preface” proves the point I am trying to make: in the base-superstructure metaphor, Marx is more concerned with ontological explanation than with (efficient) causal explanation. That is, he is more concerned with the material conditions for the existence of different relations of production and the corresponding forms (superstructures) they assume than the narrower question of the efficient cause in the change or stasis of either.

Notice that I have distinguished between ontological explanation and causal explanation. Making this explicit, we can sublate causal and ontological questions into this larger concept of explanation. Indeed, for Aristotle, “cause” is co-extensive with explanation in this broader sense. In addition, Hegel defined essence as the ground of concrete existence, likening the idea of ground to Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, which also construed reason in the broad sense of cause or explanation. [29] In the wake of philosophical empiricism and positivism, we tend today to think about causation in the narrower sense identified by Aristotle as efficient cause. Even non-positivist, realist accounts of causation have been prone to construe causation in these narrow terms (although this is changing). We would do well, however, to return to this more capacious way of thinking about cause and explanation. In this post, I have argued that if we similarly expand our notion of cause or explanation, we can make sense of Marx’s base-superstructure metaphor in a way that preserves the notion of economic primacy while also allowing full-fledged causal efficacy to the superstructure. In this view, the economic base has ontological, not causal, primacy, which still allows for dialectical causal relationships mutually determining base and superstructure. We can have our cake and eat it, too.

[1] Anandha Krishna Raj, “Law as Superstructure”, Legal Form (3 October 2018), available at; Nate Holdren, “Some Hasty Musings on Matters Legal and Economic”, Legal Form (18 November 2018), available at

[2] H. B. Acton, “The Materialist Conception of History”, 52 (1951–52) Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 207; H. B. Acton, “On Some Criticisms of Historical Materialism, II”, 44 (1970) Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplement 143; John Plamenatz, German Marxism and Russian Communism (London: Longmans, 1954); John Plamenatz, Man and Society, vol. 2 (London: Longmans, 1963).

[3] G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 217–25.

[4] “The base/superstructure metaphor has always been more trouble than it is worth. Although Marx himself used it very rarely and only in the most aphoristic and allusive formulations, it has been made to bear a theoretical weight far beyond its limited capacities.” Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 49. Marx may have used the base-superstructure metaphor only rarely, but the concept of economic primacy, which the metaphor expresses, is pervasive throughout Marx’s (and Engels’) work.

[5] Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” [1859], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 29 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 263; also available (in different translation) at

[6] China Miéville, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 88–89.

[7] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 75–89.

[8] Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, 60, 62, 108.

[9] Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History. For the view that Cohen’s theory is positivist, see Richard W. Miller, Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), chs. 5–7.

[10] Marx, “Contribution”.

[11] David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital: The Complete Edition (London: Verso, 2018), 197, 200–1.

[12] Marx, “Contribution”, 263–64.

[13] See, e.g., John Haldron, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London: Verso, 1993).

[14] Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld, “Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning”, 23 (1913) Yale Law Journal 16.

[15] Pierre Schlag, “How to Do Things with Hohfeld”, 78 (2015) Law & Contemporary Problems 185, at 232.

[16] Frederick Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” [1880], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 24 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1989), 281 (emphasis added); also available (in different translation) at

[17] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 [1867]), 151–52.

[18] Marx, Capital, 152.

[19] Williams, Marxism and Literature, 87.

[20] Marx, Capital, 874–75.

[21] Marx, Capital, 899–900.

[22] Marx, Capital, 915–16 (emphasis added).

[23] Marx, “Contribution”, 263.

[24] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [1857–58]), 83–111.

[25] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline. Part I: Science of Logic, trans. and ed. Klaus Brinkmann and Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [1830]), 177–86; also available (in different translation) at

[26] For an overview, on which I rely here, see Andrea Falcon, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta; available at

[27] Marx, “Contribution”, 263 (emphasis added).

[28] Marx, “Contribution”, 263–64.

[29] Hegel, Science of Logic, 186–90.

Matthew Dimick is Professor of Law at the University at Buffalo.