1920s >> 1925 >> no-248-april-1925

Economics and Ideas. Their Influence on Political Institutions

In one of the most valuable passages in his writings, Marx says: “The sum total of (the) relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (Intro., “Critique of Political Economy”).

By thus conceiving society as made up of a foundation structure and a superstructure, he achieved an advance of great value for the future progress of sociology. Yet no one was more fully aware than Marx that a society is an organic whole, that, though its several aspects for purposes of understanding can be separated in thought, in concrete reality they are interwoven and interdependent.

The relation of the economic basis to the superstructure is readily made clear by considering man’s social institutions as means adopted for the solution of the manifold problems that have faced him in the course of his history. His economic institutions are a solution to the problems of physical self-maintenance under given geographical, technical and historical conditions; his moral, disciplinary, political and military institutions are a response to the problems his economic system has created, and meet secondary needs made imperative, because he has become as dependent upon his economic methods as a lion upon its teeth and claws.

The chief of these secondary social problems are those arising from the division of social labour and function, and from the distribution of wealth. Where working and leisured classes have become inseparable from the economic arrangements in society the problem of repressing and overpowering the resistance of the subjected calls for permanent social machinery of coercion under the control of the exploiting class. When private ownership of wealth has become established the problem of protecting and enforcing this “right” necessitates special disciplinary institutions. Class-antagonism and private property thus underlie the structure of the state and the exact form of its structure varies with the nature of the class division and the forms of property prevailing.


Many of his ill-informed or dishonest critics have declared that Marx belittled the role of ideas in history, whereas, in actual fact, he explained their source and showed their very real social function, thus allowing them a significance and value which they could never have in a philosophy of history that regarded ideas as spontaneous generations of the “world of the spirit,” having no roots in the physical conditions of life.

To every institution and social habit there corresponds a definite group of ideas. The very base of the economic system—its productive technique—has its mental as well as its material aspect. Inseparable from the actual instruments of production is the technical knowledge necessary to make and use them. How vital this knowledge is may be vividly realised by imagining a modern machine in the hands of savages. They might break it up for spear-heads or nose-ornaments or perhaps worship it—but they would certainly not use it as it was made to be used. On the other hand, should the machines of a modern community be suddenly destroyed, if the technical knowledge remained it would be possible to reproduce them, though the process might be prolonged and difficult.

Economic relations and the institutions of the superstructure have their mental aspects also, which Marx terms the “social consciousness.” It consists of the general system of beliefs, assumptions, moral judgments and sentiments current in a community. In the literature of an age this consciousness finds expression in its best defined and most systematic form.

Just as little as the savage can comprehend and make use of the machine, can he understand and play a part in the social arrangements of civilised life. His ideology belongs to a different system of institutions, and he finds in the strange environment of civilisation his most sacred sentiments scorned and his cherished beliefs as to what is possible and impossible, right and wrong, contradicted before his eyes.

The beliefs current in a society may be said to be the outcome of its intellectual problems arising from the material conditions. They answer the inescapable questions as to “why” and “how” to the full satisfaction of the people who hold them. They “justify” and provide “reasons” for accepted customs and institutions.

The opinions and superstitions of an age naturally appear to that age the essence of truth and reason and, if, as usually the case, social institutions fully accord therewith, then they are held to be the only ways of living that are natural, practicable, reasonable and just. Thus the “vicious circle” of ideas and institutions completes itself.

A social system consists of a body of interdependent institutions and ideas. The productive institutions form the basis but, just as the foundation of a piece of architecture would be incomplete and useless without the edifice that it upholds, so the basic economic relations do not and cannot satisfy all human needs and are never found, because they cannot exist, without a supplementary superstructure.


Like all things, however, a social system is a growth. Gradually, from relatively formless and indefinable beginnings it acquires an increasingly complex and coherent structure as a result of constant modifications and adaptations to the problems of its existence.

It is in observing the growth of a system that the primary nature of the economic sub-structure is most vividly apparent. Invariably it is found that the technical and other material conditions of production change first ; that corresponding with this goes a change in the economic relations of the members of society, followed, sooner or later, by the adaptation thereto of the intellectual, moral, political and legal edifice.

This “sooner or later” is important, for it is the delay in adaptation that is responsible for the historic eras of rapid revolutionary transformation which mark history off into the fairly sharply defined social epochs that enable us to speak of the “succession of systems” without contradicting the truth of “the continuity of social change.”

One cause of the intermittent nature of social evolution lies in the conservatism of the human mind. Man withstands change and clings to old habits of thought and behaviour long after their original necessity has gone, and until new necessities cause a stimulus to movement too powerful for his further resistance. In class-divided communities, however, another highly effective factor is the control exercised by the dominant class over the institutions wielding moral and mental influence and over the political forces of coercion. By the use of these instruments the ruling class endeavours to stem the tide of social change that will dislodge it from its pre-eminence. Up to a certain point its powers prevail, but the governing class can only postpone, it cannot escape the day of its nemesis.

When through industrial evolution the needs of the productive system are no longer met by the legal and political forms prevailing, the problems pressing for solution enforce themselves upon the consciousness of masses of men, and particularly upon the class who control and live by the newer economic methods. After a more or less prolonged period of conflict with the dominant class, during which revolutionary theories are elaborated, the class of progress acquires political strength to break the resistance of the class of stagnation, to achieve the social adaptations in which its interests lie and to usher in a new social order.

Of the several great systems in social history one of the best defined and widespread is that known as “patriarchalism,” which the reader will find well yet concisely described in Jenks’ “Short History of Politics.” Wherever patriarchal conditions of life are found, whether amongst the early Jews or Greeks or, amongst the Arabs and Hindus of to-day, we discover productive and property institutions, family relationships, customs, traditions and religious forms of great similarity. A further system that arose out of patriarchalism and developed on a basis of chattel-slavery is that best seen in the Graeco-Roman civilisation. Another very definite type exhibiting considerable uniformity all over Mediaeval Europe and existing in recent Japan was the feudal system. Lastly, we have the form of society which dominates at the present time perhaps the greater part of mankind—the capitalist system.


Modern capitalist society is sometimes described simply as a form of production, but this is a mistake, for in it are involved all those institutions, usages and concep¬tions peculiar to present-day civilisation.

Wherever modern industrialism takes root there we invariably find springing up its corresponding superstructure, because the problems that it propounds are everywhere very similar and everywhere have been met in substantially the same way.

On its political side, undoubtedly the outstanding feature of bourgeois society is—representative government. One by one, as modern industry has seized them in its grip, we have seen age-old “despotic” states—Japan, Turkey, Persia—adopting the political machinery of the more advanced capitalist groups. There is in fact no case on record of capitalist production achieving any considerable development without re¬presentative institutions being set up.

In its social consciousness—its general fabric of ideas—modern society is very characteristic and differs markedly from hitherto existing systems. One of its striking features is the universal adoration for such abstract ideas as “liberty” and “equality,” for the principle of “individualism” and for the idea of “progress.”

It is well to remember how completely foreign to earlier historic systems such institutions and ideas are. Even where some degree of similarity seems to exist—as in the democratic councils of tribal communities—this disappears on examination, The democracy of the clan and the tribe was based upon blood-kinship and common and equal rights in the sources of subsistence. The community was a small exclusive brotherhood, hostile to outsiders and maintaining its coherence and identity by a rigid regard for custom and tradition, rendering the idea of individual independence unthinkable. The tribesman conceived himself as an inseparable part of his group. The tribe thought and acted almost as a unit and, in its assemblies, only unanimous votes were effective.

Bourgeois democracy, on the contrary, involves the idea of the “rights and liberties” of the individual. Before this idea could arise, the concept of the individual as an entity separate from society, had first to be evolved, and this was only possible or could only become a general conception after the individual had in reality become the unit of society by the dissolution of tribal, village and family bonds and corporate life.

The detailed regulations and formalities enforced by custom and religious tradition that governed the productive and every other sphere of activity in patriarchal and, to a lesser degree in feudal society, would seem ridiculous and intolerable to one who’s life had been spent in the competitive, “free” world of capitalism, with its individualism and its doctrine of “mind your own business.” Conventions and traditions still exist—they are a necessity to social life—but capitalism gets along with what would seem the absolute minimum were it not for the fact that their hold appears to grow day by day.

Moreover, it is down at the very basis that emancipation from convention is most complete, for, in present-day production, the age-old domination of custom has been utterly swept away. Untrammelled industry, free commerce, unrestricted exploitation of man and material, are the economic ideals of capitalism, and they have been as nearly achieved as concrete realities will allow.

The slogan of to-day is not “walk in the ways of thy fathers,” but, “go-ahead,” “evolution,” “progress.” The very conception of “progress” and its elevation to a moral principle is a product of capitalism and something new to history. As Clodd says in his “Primitive Man” : “Progress is a modern idea—a Western idea. The Orientals, from whom we may now except the Japanese, hate it. As Sir Henry Maine says in his ‘Popular Government,’ ‘the entire Mohammedan world detests it. The multitude of coloured men who swarm in the continent of Africa detest it. The millions on millions of men who fill the Chinese Empire loathe it, and, what is more, despise it.’ ” (P. 195.)

(To be continued.)


(Socialist Standard, April 1925)

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