weasel, katayama bokuyo.[0]

well said, old mole

01 november 2021


"The ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life [the economic]," Frederick Engels notes to J. Bloch in their 1890 correspondence. This note of an "ultimate determination" by the economic (productive) infrastructure then poses a confounding problematic for disentangling the political theory of the Marxist materialist dialectic. How is this infrastructure ultimately made active in the social-political superstructure? Or: what is the effective relation between the economic and the socio-political? Towards this, Louis Althusser then publishes the 1962 theoretical work "Contradiction and Overdetermination," delineating the superstructure as the "terms of existence" for the economic base, where the economic is the "last instance," lingering in opacity. Undermining this relational clarification, though, is his retention of the basic confounding principle: the ultimate determination. Here, the economic is an historical mechanism only known through its representations in superstructural epiphenomena, but somehow too known by its ultimate arrival as a determinant. The first problematic is unresolved.

I intend to demonstrate that the resolution of Althusser's theoretical aporia, and thus of the first problematic is then found in the reformulation of the economic as a political-historical mechanism altogether. By introducing the economic as the "last instance" which never arrives, whose terms of existence consist in the ephemera of the superstructure, Althusser thereby functionally nullifies but refuses to yet leave behind the confounding notion of the economic as an "ultimate determination." As such, understanding the economic mechanism as a political-historical regulator, the presence of which is known only by way of an analysis of its permeating essence as a real relational rule of the superstructural actualities, is then essential to disentangling the political theory whose strand is enduringly knotted in the Marxist materialist dialectic. It is essential to understanding what Marx has said, and to understanding what he has not.

The infinite weak point in every critical position (and I would like to tell you that I include my own here) is that when confronted with such criticism, Hegel simply has the more powerful argument. This is because there is no other world than the one in which we live, or at least we have no reliable knowledge of any alternative despite all our radar screens and giant radio telescopes. So that we shall always be told: everything you are, everything you have, you owe, we owe to this odious totality.[1]


1845, Marx starts work on the manuscripts which would become The German Ideology. The name (mordantly) references the thought of his local interlocutors, the Young Hegelians – though whereas his portion (among four authors’) opens with polemics, he spends relatively little time on a negative approach to his peers. Instead, Marx opts for a notably positive, methodological approach. He endeavors to illustrate an epistemic difference fully: to begin constructing a materialist dialectic of history.

The beginnings of a system in The German Ideology were not published in Marx’s life, though the questions and formulations posed there would become some of the most confounding for his philosophy. More remarkable among these: the question of the relation between the base and the superstructure.

His section on “History: Fundamental Conditions” then introduces a first principle for history – “the first historical act is thus […] the production of material life itself.”[2] The “daily [remaking] of [people’s] own life”[3] is therefore our base, developed by a general contradiction among itself, between productive actors and the mode of production. The way we produce our sustenance, our relations to the world of material things, as developed by the general contradiction – all together form a basic historical premise. The base is a basic premise, or first principle, on two counts: i) its necessity; ii) its causality.

First, the emergence and continuation of the base is a necessary event, insofar as humans still live and breathe. Our living and breathing requires forthright the constant constitution of material life: we must produce and reproduce things, implements, food, such that we might produce and reproduce ourselves. The contingency of the base is an exclusive disjunction here – we produce, or we die. We have not yet died, though; the base is therefore a functionally necessary event.

Second, the emergence and continuation of the base is too a causal event, i.e., an event which corresponds directly to the happening of another event, or events. Taken this way, the base is a concrete-clothed mechanism atop which history sits, but according to whose general productive contradictions, history is activated: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”[4] This history as apparent to us would be the superstructure – the sphere of consciousness, as architected by our thoughts, but as ultimately or uniformly determined by our material things.

The superstructure is rather the concatenation of our culture, our politicking, our religion. It is here named the epiphenomenal, or insubstantial plane of our thoughts as transmitted from below. Like King Hamlet (the old mole)[i] from beneath the stage offers counsel to his heir, so the subterranean base offers us the edifices of our thought. The superstructure is an island aweigh, whose anchor sits past fathoms of opaque water: i.e., “it is quite immaterial what consciousness starts to do on its own.”[5] For the Marx of The German Ideology, (superstructural) consciousness is an epiphenomenal representation, the base its actuality – here, the materialist dialectic is the impossible attainment to the social-historical noumena.

Marx would become decreasingly generous to the reader, and thereby increasingly sophisticated in his later discourses on the realm of ideas and their causal or effective relations to the material. By 1859, his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy would gesture to an analysis of “the ideological forms in which men become conscious of this [class] conflict and fight it out,”[6] affording distinct substance to the preceding vacuity of the superstructure. In the 1867 Capital, Marx remarkably notes that the ideological (superstructural) form of the commodity corresponds to a proper, self-represented reality of personal activity: “the social relations between their [producers’] private labors appear [erscheinen] as what they are.”[7][ii]

By 1890, Marx (the person) is dead. In correspondence with Joseph Bloch, Marx’s living companion Friedrich Engels provides a codicil to the materialist dialectic: “according to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real [material] life.”[8] By specifying the ultimate determination, Engels intends: “the economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure […] also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles.”[9]

As though this point were a mere restatement, he notes: “… other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted.”[10]

By 1962, Engels is dead, as well. Louis Althusser here publishes Contradiction and Overdetermination, a theoretical text with expressly anti-Hegelian aims – though the Hegel here is often unfamiliar as Hegel, instead a Hegel for Althusser, a Hegel qua Feuerbach. Nevertheless, Althusser intends to demonstrate that “basic structures of the Hegelian dialectic […] have for Marx a structure different from the structure they have for Hegel.”[11]

This is to be done, plainly, by way of conceptually transforming the causal relation of base and superstructure: “… it cannot be claimed that these [superstructural] contradictions […] are merely the pure phenomena of the general contradiction.”[12] They are instead “its conditions of existence,”[13] the conjunct presentation of that “ultimate determination” whose cue to center stage is never issued.

Although, by grounding his theoretical developments in hermeneutics, Althusser then holds a primary aporia in his text: how can the base be an ultimate determination whose “lonely hour”[14] does not arrive? How is the economic a “determination in the last instance,”[15] if, “from the first moment to the last,” the last instance never comes, King Hamlet never seen?[16]

My primary intention in this review, critique, and development of the extant theoretical positions (within Marx, and beyond Marx) on the relation of the base to the superstructure is not to provide a strict exegesis of pertinent texts. The purpose here is hermeneutical only insofar as a degree of interpretive work is necessary to our theoretical development. Instead, I intend to ask: how is the base active in the superstructure, and what does this entail for a Marxist politics?

I should like to apply a thoroughgoing skepticism to our outlay of premises, towards a cogent political theory of the materialist dialectic. I intend to demonstrate the necessity and self-sufficiency of the superstructure and its effects; in whose episodes and interstices the mechanisms of the base are actualized. The goal is a monism, more than a dualism.

Our culture, our politics, our religion are not – in sum, our ideology is not – an inert deformity of thought which misconstrues the base; the base consists in these items, and the regulatory historical functions of production are active between and throughout and within them, actualized and expressed only in this way.

For our concepts to cohere, it should be determined: there is no truth underneath the surface of appearances, no spirit transmitting our ideas. The truth is of the surface.[17] The lonely hour of the last instance, that old mole, does not rear its head before all history – it really never comes.

Unidirectional Causality and “The German Ideology”

“It is quite obvious from the start that there exists a materialistic connection of men with one another,” Marx emphasizes in The German Ideology; he continues: “… this connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a ‘history’ independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which in addition may hold men together.”[18] The earliest sketches of the base-superstructure relation delineate a simple, apparent model: a dualism, with a primarily unidirectional causality.

The base is here first a necessary event, bursting forth from natural impulses (i.e., humans must produce to live); though with its emergence as the response to a physiological need is the immediate, coinciding emergence of another necessary event: social relations.[19]

At a basic level, humans as a subject must eat and must sleep, should they live. This requires the production of those items which can fulfill these needs. Those items require some exertion of labor towards their production – some unfortunate deer must be slain, and venison cooked; some berry must be picked; some warm hovel dug out from the soil, etc. From the production of these items, primary needs are fulfilled. If Marx is to be followed here though, the fulfillment of these needs is then only a precondition for the “production of new needs.”[20]

The “production of new needs” – which happens with the same motion that those primary needs are fulfilled – is then the impetus for the coincidence of natural and social relations.[21] The individual human and their undeveloped cognitive, physical, and material faculties have reached the outer bounds of their capabilities. Other humans are needed to sustain production: “it follows from this that a certain mode of production […] is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation.”[22]

Here, in a few moments really conjoined in their occurrence, Marx begins the genealogy of society, and in particular, of consciousness. The base and its motion are initially all well and fine, conceptually. The phase here might seem trivial, an unsophisticated prehistory reduced to the most elementary parts. It is instead the introduction of the superstructure, those signifying edifices of consciousness – as distinguished from the signified things in the base – through which this uncomplicated truth becomes less trivial, more obscure.

The base, starting from an outlay of needs, is in our reductive prehistory developed by productive contradictions. E.g., many hovels are needed for a growing population, but the adept diggers are consumed by hunting and berry-picking. This contradiction (generalized) is resolved by the division of labor – diggers will dig, berry-pickers pick.

Though following this division of labor, for Marx, is the realest moment of deformity for consciousness – “a division of material and mental labor appears.”[23] This resolution within the base is a cause; the superstructure as so many epiphenomena is the effect, whereby: “consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real [material].”[24]

A unidirectional causality is established by this, as is a dualism. The base is the necessary event, of a real (material) substance, developed by its immanent contradictions. Productive motion is thereby deficiently self-represented in the emanating whisps of thought, contained in the superstructure as “the image of very empirical fetters and limitations, within which the mode of production of life and the form of intercourse coupled with it [production] move.”[25] The superstructure is thus the empty idiom of the base, an oblique gesture across a historical gulf, towards an actuality in the base. The materialist dialectic is here our Rosetta Stone through which the expressive gap is bridged, glyph and referent married at last.

We have established the necessity of the base already – though not of the superstructure. With our unidirectionality and dualism at hand, we are thus brought first to a simple causation of the unnecessary or insubstantial superstructure by the necessary or substantial base. The superstructure is here an incomplete instrument of compound lenses, whose object (the base) is obscure without the addition of a secondary, focusing element – the materialist dialectic. The whole of the instrument becomes unnecessary, though, if we could only see its object for ourselves – bring it nearer, somehow.

The base is our first historical form: could we, through some concerted enterprise of language, reconstitute our vocabulary such that no cipher is needed? Could the superstructure be dissolved, by way of a circuited alignment of our consciousness to its objects through the superstructure as a self-exhausting medium? Or better, could we just start anew – reconstruct consciousness as a plain empiricism, reverse the original sin of non-correspondence? The picked berry would now be basically known by the productive act of picking, the venison by cooking and hunting, etc.

The formulation of the superstructure as unnecessary becomes untenable quickly – sparing its counterfactual ventures into the occult. Principally, the logical premises were already deficient: a necessary event (the base) cannot be causal of something unnecessary. If the base is defined by its dual causality and necessity, the superstructure must as the output is necessary, as well.

Moreover though, the question of the superstructure as an infinitude of hieroglyphics would not discover a resolution in language – or in a redevelopment of consciousness – through which we attain to an intimate proximity with the base, at least as here formulated. The perceptive distance of (ideological) consciousness from the material would be implied as necessary, as well, in the necessity of the superstructure as caused by the base, by its nature distinct and apart.

With this, the relation of a unidirectional causality might imply too some degree of lag. The superstructure, i.e., our consciousness of a necessary production, is constituted by the motions of the base, but only after the motions are actualized. There is a particular inertia of the base, later represented to ourselves by way of the superstructure. The puzzling “gap” is thus conceptual or linguistic, as well as temporal. The lineage of The German Ideology reflects this much: “… from the start the ‘spirit’ is afflicted with the curse of being ‘burdened’ with matter.”[26] No time for a concerted, proactive enterprise of consciousness is afforded.

If the superstructure is then constituted by a lag – and is to be understood as the vehicle of a discarded substance originating in the base – then of what substance is our ideology, our consciousness? If the superstructure is the effect of the base (and this causal relation is necessary) and is drawn from the substance of the base however exhausted (as Marx suggests),[27] then even as an idiom the superstructure would contain the mediated content of the base.

Moreover, if the superstructure is the bearer of some economic substance – i.e., caused directly by it and no other exigencies – then the dual forms (base, superstructure) are isomorphic. The transformation of economic activity into the flitting images of refracted consciousness, ideology, implies that the base qua anchor might be reached by an inversion of that original transformation; the base-superstructure relation is here defined by a shared structure of structures.

The descending voyage from our superstructural island aweigh does not produce or discard substance. It is a simple reordering, or else we introduce conditions of causal relation apart from the transformation heretofore established: how can a direct cause, of delimited substance, produce an effect whose substance exceeds those delimitations? Conversely, how can a cause necessary in its entirety (we have excluded the notion of ephemeral or non-causal productive moments) produce a cause of lesser substance, if all parts coincide or congeal to form an effect?

The motion of a muscle expends energy, released as heat. The apparent effect is of a lesser (energetic) substance than the cause, though the full effect retains all original substance. Nevertheless, there is no reason to assume a caloric expenditure in the social transformation of economic activity into consciousness. There are no productive modes which invisibly emanate outwards from the relation – there is no lost heat still unaccounted for, and no heat impossibly obliterated. The parts constitute a system, each necessary, each of a shared substance.

The model of an enclosed system, however, offers a few problems for the formulation of unidirectional causality. Among them: how are preceding moments of the superstructure discarded, exceeded by some new transformation as provided by the base? Plainly: how, if unidirectionally caused from without and self-insufficient, does consciousness attain to historical development – how are previous ideas replaced, if mutually indifferent and ineffective transmissions, conditioned by the economic?

The defunction of the feudal modes of production across Europe did not correspond to the evaporation of, e.g., Aquinas’s body of text. A hasty reconstruction of the Hegelian aufhebung (the preservation of the moment in that which supersedes it) might afford a partial solution here: whereby philosophy retained a kernel of theology, inasmuch as capital has the kernel of the fief.

Though already, the shared substance and isomorphism of the base and superstructure lends us to the notion of shared effectivity. We here determine: if the superstructure is to attain to some historical development about its architecture of ideas, then these ideas must have a degree of potency apart from the base, related effectively both among themselves and to the base. We now arrive at a multidirectional causality, a self-sufficiency and causal character of the superstructure; “otherwise the application of [the materialist dialectic] to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.”[28]

Multidirectional or Reciprocal Causality and the “Last Instance”

The mutual necessity, self-sufficiency, and effectivity of the base and superstructure exceed the formulations of The German Ideology. We are brought to the theoretical developments of a Marx living after the moments Althusser would call an “epistemic break.”[29]

Multidirectional causality, or reciprocal causality, between the base and superstructure retains two principal features from our unidirectional model: a dualism, and a conceptual-temporal gulf between the dual bodies (a constitutive lag, and a non-correspondence of thoughts). The primary difficulty of delineating the development of consciousness – given the lag – is then obviated by the circuit of self-sufficient effects between the superstructure and base. Here, we arrive directly at Engels’s codicil: “we make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions […] among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive.”[30]

The precedingly epiphenomenal, or insubstantial moments of the superstructure, are now of a real substance. The island-anchor analogy fails; King Hamlet and his heir are now in a contingent conversation across the threshold of the stage, however much the knowing spirit might direct it. The superstructure, that is, has an effectivity of its parts – they are emergent “in the last instance”[31] from the base, though affect themselves and productive activity as though independent.

However, the question of the established isomorphism reappears here. If the base and superstructure are isomorphic, then the effects of events in the superstructure are the rearrangement of the effective parallelograms of events originating in the base. The first parallelogram can be reached via an inversion – but how does a simple rearrangement of constituent effects then affect production, and moreover, affect with remarkable latency?

To begin, we could imagine two outwards-stretching parallel bodies horizontally oriented, but vertically differentiated: the bottom, superstructure, the top, base. Both bodies reach through history towards our present conjuncture, though the bottom line is imperceptibly anterior – the top at a lag. Flows of effects, the first of which comes from the bottom, interlink the bodies through the gap in reciprocity. These flows are a transformation: moments of the base, proceeding from the “first historical act”[32] of an original production, have their “parallelogram of individual wills [as forces]”[33] rearranged towards their appearance in the superstructure.

The interaction and rearrangement of parallelograms (a formulation borrowed from Engels) now asks, however: how do these parallelograms emerge, and what is their constitution? Plainly: what is the basic unit of history?

Engels to Bloch notes: “history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills,”[34] each will the bearer of (or determined by) those conditions provided for it by preceding wills, transmitted from the past. The parallelogram is then the local crystal of contradicting and determinate wills, the aggregate of other coinciding wills whose transformations, and whose coincidence with other parallelograms of “an infinite series,” bears out “the historical event” as a resultant.[35]

Though the activity of these individual wills might be relatively apparent, or at least more temporally determinate in the base – e.g., in all its presuppositions, the single act of exchange is perhaps often readily specified – their situation in the superstructure is less so. The logical-historical capacity to invert the meta-structure of the superstructure such that the original relations of production are reached has been henceforth established; though when reduced to the microscopic, this capacity becomes less available. The specified act of exchange can hardly be causally connected in any tenable way to a particular, emergent, superstructural idea.

Engels to Bloch then elevates this epistemological difficulty to the level of a functional impossibility: whereby the superstructure is an “endless host of accidents,” whose “inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible.”[36] The “endless host of accidents” is then an outgrowth of the self-sufficiency of superstructural moments, the transmitted parallelograms permeating among themselves, ideas first provided from below and transformed now mutually interactive and transformative.

“The various elements of the superstructure […] also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles,” Engels notes – however, “there is an interaction of all these elements in which […] the economic movement finally assets itself as necessary.”[37]

The superstructure is conditioned by the base here, but only as the first and last cause. The counsel of the prescient King Hamlet is altered by its delivery to the stage, therefrom contoured and made malleable by its circulation through the mouths and ears of every character. The basically inverted idea made available to us by the base is then subject to infinite permutations as rearranged within the medium of the superstructure, as coupled and fused with ideas extant and newly emergent – producing a whole enterprise of ideas to which no person is, no persons are, the proprietor. These ideas, beginning from the conditions laid out by productive activity and the consciousness of the “dead generations [weighing] like a nightmare,”[38] are then unfolded into a profound multiplicity whose effects circle back, sink through pale water to act on the base.

A question here emerges: when does the economic present itself as necessity; when do the coincidences of a vacuous infinity conclude, the old mole unearthed at last? How can the superstructure self-actively deal in non-corresponding concepts, only later cohered by the base?

If the base retains a reciprocal, and necessarily causal relation to the superstructure, then we might conclude that the development of economic contradictions towards some historical necessity (a burst) can be delineated, too, in the superstructure. The activity of the superstructure on the base would then be constitutive, however partially, of this development towards a moment of necessity – whereby, for Althusser, “the ‘contradiction’ is inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found […] from its formal conditions of existence.”[39]

Plainly, if there is a circuit of effects between the base and superstructure (however regressive towards infinity in the upper body), then the internal development of the superstructure is at least the marginal creation of political, etc. conditions by which the base “asserts itself as necessary.”[40] What are these conditions, though – and how are they expressed?

The “bursting forth” of the economic contradiction would then constitute history, or an historical event; the conditions or moments through which the contradiction is developed and then bursts forth are therefore historical, too. Althusser here discards the “epistemological impossibility” of the superstructure and its multiplicities – instead noting: “what makes […] an event historical is not the fact that it is an event, but precisely its insertion into forms which are themselves historical.”[41] Here, the constitution of history happens (of necessity) adjacent a necessary dimension of non-history, a non-happening of historical events towards which the “unintelligible [bad] infinity” of parallelograms then resolves, immaterial: “it is never possible to explain a historical event – not even if by invoking the law which makes quantity pass over into quality – if one proposes to derive it from the (indefinite) possibility of non-historical events.”[42]

Not all events, all moments of the base or superstructure are directly constitutive of history. The motion of the muscle necessarily releases energy as invisible heat. The emanation of non-historical events from the development of history is then equally necessary, but not as an unseen exothermic reaction; it is instead the unseen, social act of forgetting – forgetting “the infinity of things which happen to men day and night, things which are anonymous as they are unique.”[43] It is the forgetting, as well, of those possible events which did not happen at all: “it does not escape Engels that the said forces present might cancel one another out.”[44]

The base-superstructure relation for Althusser bears minimal utility towards explaining the limitless items which populate daily life; the limitless items forgotten, contributive to our historical conjuncture in a microscopic capacity the character of which is entirely unavailable to us. The unfolding of history is our object – little else. The emergence of the economic contradiction (i.e., the “assertion of necessity” in the last historical instance) is then not through the infinite aggregate of functionally inert particular events, but instead, through the specified outlay of observable, historical conditions – a methodological pivot.

“[Setting] out from another level than its own, from a level which is not the object of any scientific knowledge (such as, in our case, the genesis of individual wills from the infinity of circumstances and the genesis of the final resultant from the infinity of parallelograms),” Althusser contends, the materialist dialectic of Engels becomes either an “epistemological void,” or from its vertigo instead produces the artifices of metaphysics: a “philosophical fullness.”[45]

The constitution of history is then the emergence of the necessity of the economic through the conjuncture of (superstructural) historical forms irreducible to the “bad infinity” of individual wills. We turn to the more empirically available conditions, which both enable and contour the emergence of the economic. Should we follow Althusser, the base which “triumphs in the last instance” is “no longer external to the accidents […] it is the internal essence of these accidents,”[46] but an essence which mutually conditions – and is conditioned by – the essential bearers.

Plainly, “[these conditions] derive from the relations of production […] but [they are] at the same time its [the economic] conditions of existence.”[47] The “general contradiction” of the economic is then “radically affected by [the instances it governs], determining, but also determined in one and the same movement.”[48] The necessity of the economic is then never simple, but always expressed in the concrete historical forms, of which it is the originally causal event.

Concrete historical forms then circulate about themselves in the superstructure, reworking themselves, mutually transformative; though they do not sink through pale water to seabed, maneuver the subterranean towards that old mole. These forms instead condition the ascendance of the anchor, the surfacing of the old mole – they are the married achievements of King Hamlet having worked the earth so fast, now ready to present himself in the fullest transparency, stage cleared for his cue.

The cue does not come, though. Inasmuch as the emergence of the economic is always conditioned (i.e., shaped by the forms through which it appears), “the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state.”[49] The general contradiction bursts forth as a transparent necessity in the last instance, but “the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.”[50] The motion of history, before the base comes onstage, has always, already been mapped – through a concatenation (overdetermined) of independently sufficient superstructural conditions for a burst, however first caused or substantiated by the economic. The “[real contradiction] was only discernible, identifiable, and manipulable through them [its circumstances] and in them.”[51]

We ask now: how does a necessary, causal event present itself as necessary, if it never happens? If the historicity of the base is always, already bound up in its conditions – an extant essence more than an external mechanism – then the “last instance” is conceptually empty. Should Althusser intend to collapse the base-superstructure relation, the basic aporia must be resolved: the last instance never arrives; there is no “ultimate determination.”

The Economic as Essence, and the Political Theory of the Materialist Dialectic

“Men do not therefore bring the products of their labor into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labor,” Marx writes in "The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret."[52]

“The reverse is true,” he continues: “by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labor as human labor. They do this without being aware of it.”[53]

The social form of value is the essence of capitalist production, but this “essence” is not a Cartesian substance; it is not a metaphysical property, not an objective attribute. Value is the essence of capitalist production insofar as it is the permeating regulator, the very relation between distinct moments of activity – the cohering rule, the meta-structure of structures which is not apart from, but one with, the structure. Distinct objects, commodities, are themselves values, but their constitution as essentially values is the mode of their interrelation.

The economic is then not a necessity of the “last instance,” but instead the immanent structure of social activities and their interactivity – where the economic dialectic has no pure appearance only because it is always, already constituted by (and constitutive of) the (super-)structure of ideology. The superstructure is here the medium of the base, and both the bearer and enfolding of the base as its essence. Ideology is the representation of producers’ economic activities to themselves, but it is an isomorphic representation governed by the same relational modes as the productive, composed by the same essence – the two are really one: “to producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labors appear as what they are.”[54]

The base is active in the superstructure as the real rule, which is its essence; just as value governs the activities of production, so it is inverted in our self-representations of activity, where to think of the “social relations between individuals in the performance of their labor” as personal relations is to really act in that way, where the converse holds out, as well.[55] Ideology is the only available truth of an activity, even if it is a non-corresponding truth. We discover here the “infinite weak point” of the delineation of historical events by Althusser, the delineation of causality by Engels and a young Marx before him. We have no insight towards a truth beyond the value-dictated surface, the whole contemporary enterprise of human activity and consciousness here a surface-level totality beholden to the outlay of rules established by a social-physical system – one to which no one person is the proprietor, but according to which we act.

We therefore come to a monism of the base and superstructure, more than a dualism. There is no cipher for ideology – no getting “behind the secret of [our] own social product.”[56] A Marxist politics must not be a metaphysical system, a decoding of reality; it must deal with the social-physical system on its own terms, as truth, but as a contingent truth. Plainly, whereas the Newtonian physics of the natural world might need to exist, or have an existence apart from us – the value form does not: “the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as is their language.”[57]

Here is the political theory of the materialist dialectic: we speak and engage and interact in a capacity delimited by value – and we engage value only through these delimited moments of our speech, our engagements, our interactions. Though this value is the outgrowth of a particular mode of social relations, its possibility affords us the capacity to imagine other possibilities, however bounded this imagination might be by value having happened.

To be politically Marxist is to necessarily take up positions in the superstructure, its moments as the empirically available (though opaque) expressions of value. We cannot turn to an orthodoxy, whereby the hermeneutics of theory might enable us to read the occulted character of the world; we must deal with “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past,”[58] however unreadily apprehended the dream might be.


The dualism of base and superstructure – referent and glyph – is untenable; ideology, the superstructural thinking and consciousness of our productive activity, is not an occulting.[59] The base is the permeating relational-regulator, the essence through arrangement of the superstructure – whereby there is no concrete-clothed mechanism, no King Hamlet below stage, no voyage through fathoms of water which comprise a conceptual-temporal lag. We deal instead with a total surface, with a real isomorphism. To engage the social activity of exchange, to engage the flitting images of identity as expressions of value, is to think them: ideology and production are of the same stuffs.

Marxist politics does not consist in a discovery of a sovereign route through the riddles of thought, from which history might unfold itself. It is the empirical treatment of extant conditions, discerned as what they are – and changed therefrom, in however relative opacity. There is no outside to the totality, except through its thorough upheaval. It is an upheaval by way of the pounded soil of history, at which no subterranean hand of the economic works. We are left to each other, however misguided, however dependent upon ourselves to correct course, though ready and expectant to receive our name upon surfacing: “well burrowed, old mole!”[60]


[i] Reference to the ghost of Hamlet’s father issuing counsel from below stage – to whom Shakespeare refers as the “old mole.” Used as metaphor for Spirit in Hegel’s Philosophy of History, a metaphor later employed in Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

[ii] All underscoring is mine.

ground swell, edward hopper.


[0] All images c. WikiArt.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964 – 1965, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 47.

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, ed. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1996), 48.

[3] Ibid., p. 49.

[4] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994), 158.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, ed. C.J. Arthur, 52.

[6] Karl Marx, “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” in Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994), 211.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital Volume I (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 166.

[8] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to J. Bloch: In Königsberg,” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed November 01, 2021, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso Books, 2005), 93 – 94.

[12] Ibid., 100.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 113.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Roland Simon, “The conjuncture: a concept necessary to the theory of communisation,” libcom.org. Accessed November 01, 2021, https://libcom.org/library/conjecture-concept-necessary-theory-communisation.

[18] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, ed. C.J. Arthur, 50.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 49.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 50.

[23] Ibid., 51.

[24] Ibid., 52.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 50.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to J. Bloch: In Königsberg,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[29] Louis Althusser, “On the Young Marx,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso Books, 2005), 63 – 64.

[30] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to J. Bloch: In Königsberg,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[31] Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, 111.

[32] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, ed. C.J. Arthur, 48.

[33] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to J. Bloch: In Königsberg,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994), 188.

[39] Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, 101.

[40] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to J. Bloch: In Königsberg,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[41] Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, 126.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 123.

[45] Ibid., 127.

[46] Ibid., 121.

[47] Ibid., 100.

[48] Ibid., 101.

[49] Ibid., 113.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 98.

[52] Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, 166.

[53] Ibid., 166 – 67.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 170.

[56] Ibid., 167.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon, 188.

[59] Roland Simon, “The conjuncture: a concept necessary to the theory of communisation,” libcom.org.

[60] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon, 198.