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These are terms used by Karl Marx (1818 - 1883).

What is Marxism?

It depends who you ask, and in what context.

It’s a bit like asking “What is Christianity?” and getting answers from a Catholic, an Anglican, a Pentecostal and an atheist. Many of his ideas have been interpreted in various ways and in a some cases turned into a belief system that promises a certain kind of future if you follow the recipe. But others are forms of analysis you can use to describe how society works, open to testing and analysis.

Here, we are concerned with the simple idea of substructure and superstructure, which will fit very easily with the ideas described in previous pages. Here is his version:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

So the forces and relations of production (how we make and consume things, and relate to the making and consuming structure) are a base or infrastructure. From it emerges a superstructure with important functions and properties. It has laws and political structures which exist to

legitimate the power of the social class which owns the means of economic production - Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton

and it contains an ideology (political, religious, ethical, aesthetic ideas) with the same function. Thus:

the dominant ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class (ibid)

Note that to Marxists, ideology is defined as a:

complex structure of social perception which ensures that the situation in which one social class has power over the others is either seen by most members of society as 'natural', or not seen at all (Ibid)

For example, most of us have heard the old hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, but how many school assemblies still include this verse, once considered unexceptional:

The rich man in his castle
The poor man
at his gate,
He made them high and lowly
He ordered their estate

In this context, we might also re-examine the term ‘ideology’.

In colloquial use, it usually means a set of belief people hold. It is often used in abusive ways, to say that a person’s ideology blinds them to facts they cannot see because of what they believe. An ideologue is thus a fanatic, blind to what we call ‘reality’. Of course, from their point of view, they know the truth and everyone else is blind.

Marx’s idea of superstructure tries to explain ideology, which is a form of blindfold, and thus to liberate us from the its effect.

In the same way that some works of art can express and strengthen a set of values we think of as ‘natural’. Others might try to challenge it. 

Althusser (1918-1990) argued that art cannot be simply reduced to ideology, it has a particular relationship to it. It might, for example, distance itself from the ideology and permit us to perceive and feel the ideology from which it springs. It helps us experience a situation and by doing so helps us to see it directly, and to see the ideology directly. In other words, some artistic experiences reinforce our blindfold and some try to remove it. I am not referring here to simple propaganda - it might be a complex process. When Milton wrote Paradise Lost he thought he was supporting his religion: 

I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men (Line, 26).

In fact his imagination made such a good job of creating a ‘real’ Lucifer that many readers were able to experience his feelings and then took Lucifer’s side. The artist need not be consciously aware of what he or she has achieved for us as readers.

So, in summary, superstructure allows the ruling group to convince both themselves and the ruled that their power is natural, their values normal and neither open to question. Art, consciously or unconsciously, can remove the blindfold. So can serious analysis of history and modern society. 

A minor strand within this context allows certain voters to think that being a conservative is a normal thing to do and being a socialist is abnormal, so that voting conservative is not being political but voting Labour is, because ‘being political’ is being awkward, wanting change, questioning the norm. Refusing to change is then not ‘political’.  This can be believed even if a conservative party brings in radical new policies, like leaving the EU, as it is the ‘natural’ ruling party who did it

media analysis and story telling