Duncan Hallas

Comments on Base and Superstructure

(Winter 1987)

From Three responses to Chris Harman’s account of base and superstructure, International Socialism 2:34, pp. 125–127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman’s article is a valuable contribution. It does though give certain hostages to fortune which are not necessary to his argument.

(i) “There is a confusion at the very centre of Marxism” (p.4). This is a mistaken formulation. There is indeed a contradiction between two sides, two aspects, of our attempt to grasp reality in order to change it; but that is by no means the same thing as a confusion. The contradiction is rooted in the reality and cannot be solved by theoretical refinements, but only by transforming that reality and ten only by a certain, although large, degree.

On the one hand ‘freedom’. “History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles. It is man, real living man that does all that ... History is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims” (Marx and Engels in The Holy Family). All that happens in society is the result of human action.

This is surely right and the only scientific approach; anything else leads to mysticism, God or that kind of mechanical materialism which denies the essential distinguishing characteristics of the human species.

On the other hand ‘constraint’. “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations which are independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.”

This too is surely right. It is a foundation, a central pillar of historical materialism.

The contradiction between ‘freedom’ and ‘constraint’ can be solved formally in a statement. Nobody has ever done this better than Marx himself in a famous passage in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

Yet this statement, this formal solution, does not predict a determinate outcome. Nor could it, or any variant or elaboration of it, because of an inherent limitation in the nature of our knowledge.

It is the limitation which Marx states in the Second Thesis on Feuerbach: “The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is the reality and power ... of his thinking.” I take this to be the essence of the scientific method and our only sure guide.

There is therefore an element of indeterminacy in Marxism (and in any conceivable scientific theory of society). And that element of indeterminacy is not simply a matter of our relative ignorance but is inherent in the nature of our understanding; of our interaction with other forces in society.

(ii) The most useful way to approach the base/superstructure problem is via the contradiction between ‘freedom’ and ‘constraint’, and their relative weight in various circumstances.

Let us take ‘constraint’ first. It must be said that to some extent Chris Harman erects a straw man called ‘Kautsky/Plekhanov’. As a polemical device this is understandable. Each of them did contribute substantially to the ‘deterministic Marxism’ characteristic of sections of the Second International. However much of what Kautsky and especially Plekhanov said on these matters is, I believe, correct.

Chris Harman renders Kautsky as follows: “Thus the Hussites of the fifteenth century and the revolutionary Anabaptists of the sixteenth century had been able to fight courageously and to present the vision of a new society; but, for Kautsky, they could not alter the inevitable development of history.“ If we replace inevitable by general then of course Kautsky was correct. If he was not then our whole analysis of Stalinism in Russia (and Trotsky’s too) is nonsense. Neither Chris nor I believe this for a moment. In these cases ‘constraint’ was dominant.

Plekhanov is particularly useful in connection with the base/superstructure problem.

(iii) There are three ways in which we can regard the base/superstructure argument. The first is to take it literally. This will not do. Societies are not buildings. It is not the case that ‘economic foundations’ are built and then subsequently a superstructure of institutions and ideas develops. The second approach is the ‘indeterminate’ argument. Ideas, relations between classes of people (social relations), the state and so on are always unique and so cannot be predicted. This is the ‘configurationist’ position. It won’t do either. Because, while pointing to an undoubted fact – all actual societies have specific and unique features (i.e. the British monarchy, the US constitution, etc.) – it ignores fundamental similarities.

Which brings us back to Plekhanov’s statement of the base/superstructure problem: “A historico-social factor is an abstraction, and the idea of it originates as a process of abstraction. Thanks to the process of abstraction, various sides of the social complex assume the form of separate categories and the various manifestations of the activity of social man ... are converted in our minds into separate forces which appear to give rise to and determine this activity ...” (The Materialist Conception of History).

This is still I think the most realistic way to envisage the base/superstructure analogy.


Last updated on 29.2.2012