Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.
Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.
Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.
The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.
The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911
The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.
For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.
Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.
What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.
To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.
During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.
The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.
Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008
To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.
To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.