According to Karl Marx the relations of production constitute the base upon which a legal and political superstructure rests. They also structure social relations between classes, producing corresponding forms of social consciousness. Thus, as Marx puts it, ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’ (‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859
). This and similar propositions have been the source of much debate about the nature and degree of economic determinism. At one extreme, it might be argued that all social, political and cultural life can be ‘read off’ from the relations of production, and that the social consciousness of the individual is determined by his or her position in the economic structure. Such a view challenges the notion of free will and individual autonomy, and has been criticized accordingly. Alternatively, the relations of production could be seen merely as a constraining factor in the development of the superstructure, defining no more than the broad parameters to which the superstructure and individual consciousness will loosely correspond.
These points were elaborated by Friedrich Engels after Marx's death, such that economic relations were denied any automatic determining effect, but seen rather as exerting a ‘decisive influence’. Engels's phraseology has been the focus of much debate within Marxism and the source of much criticism by non-Marxists. At the heart of the criticism is the desire to assert the power of ideas and the potential of autonomous individuals to effect social change. See also ALTHUSSER, LOUIS.
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