In Praise of Base and Superstructure

The base-superstructure idea may well be one of the most useful things from the Marxist conceptual canon. That’s because it’s a good way of thinking about primacy.

Marxism holds that society is like a building: its basis or foundation is the economy while the superstructure is everything else from law to politics to religion. The base has primacy, it conditions the superstructure, it determines in the last instance. The base has primacy because it is dynamic, and eventually must transform the whole. Changes in the base lead, sooner or later, to changes in the superstructure. All this applies on the epochal scale, it should be needless to say, not on the day-to-day scale.

That core claim—that the most dynamic part of a system has primacy—is clear and compelling.

Of course later reformulations allowed for increasing amounts of mutual influence between the two as well as plenty of relative autonomy to the superstructure.

I would like to pilfer the base-superstructure notion from the Marxist canon and put to other uses. After all, Marxists can hardly claim it as their own private property.

So, we can imagine a Darwinian version: the base is our genetic infrastructure and the superstructure is everything else. Naturally, the superstructure can affect the base. There is mutual influence, just as there is plenty of relative autonomy to the superstructure. But overall the base has primacy, it conditions the superstructure. Changes in the base eventually bring changes in the superstructure, likewise continuities in the base limit the scope for changes in superstructure. Again, all this refers to an epochal timeframe, not necessarily to day to day events.

Maybe one day others too will be talking of other bases and superstructures.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “In Praise of Base and Superstructure

  1. I’d like to chime in and offer some praise for the base-superstructure model as well. Marvin Harris also theorised about bases and superstructures, adding distinctions between infrastructure (material base), structure (institutions) and superstructure (culture). Harris’s material base includes demography and human interaction with the biotic environment as well as production – it’s a form of environmental materialism. In IR, Daniel Deudney borrowed ideas of base (comprised means and modes of destruction) and superstructure (relations of destruction) in his ‘historical security materialism’ to characterise different sorts of violence-wielding regimes in world history. It’s not actually very Marxian and borrows more from the classical republican tradition of thought.

    Couldn’t E O Wilson’s ‘leash theory’ be construed as a Darwinian base-superstructure theory of genes and culture?

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