Populism & The Base-Superstructure Model
(Disclaimer: this piece is very old, when I thought being very snooty meant being very smart.)
“A spectre is haunting the world: populism. A decade ago, when the new nations were emerging into independence, the question asked was: how many will go Communist? Today, this question, so plausible then, sounds a little out of date. In as far as the rulers of the new states embrace an ideology, it tends more to have a populist character…”
These words ring true in today’s global political system than it ever did when it was first pointed out in the 1960s. Since the start of the twenty-first century, populists have been winning elections in democracies. It started with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and spread to other Bolivarian leaders in Latin America, such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. In Europe, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy came and went, but Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have cemented their grip on power. Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in 2016, the year also saw Donald Trump taking over the White House.
Left-wing Populism and the Base Superstructure Model
Populism, although most commonly used in the mainstream, contemporary media in association with the right wing, the term itself is devoid of a specific political connotation. Quite literally, it means “of the people”, creating a rhetoric of an ‘We, the people’ versus a targeted ‘Them’. Leftist theory is rife with examples of this sort of populism, at the root of which is the proletariat-bourgeoisie clash (where the poor, working class proletariat represent the people whilst the rich, upper-class bourgeoisie form the ‘Them’). Central to this idea is Marx’s general guiding theory, the Base-Superstructure Theory (BST). While the foundational theory itself lost renown with the backlash against the waves of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘identity politics’ in the 1990s, the fundamental philosophical ideology behind still retains its merit (Fields, 2017).
The materialist principle of Marxist analysis ought to be credited for that. Termed later as ‘dialectical materialism’, Marxist philosophy stood in stark contrast to the Hegelian dialectic, with its inclusion of the real world conditions of the socio-economic order in the study of nature and philosophy. The BST, among the most famous interpretations of the Marxist dialectics, pioneered in its recognition of the populace as an entity antithetical to the ruling elite, defined in terms of their productive state:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production” (Marx & Rojas, 1977).
Prima facie, the theory illustrates a simple dichotomy: the Base consists of the “productive class” which partakes in the production feature of the goods economy while the Superstructure corresponds to the socio-political overlay preserving the incumbent social order. The productive relations of individuals, according to Marx, are intricately interwoven in the social fabric, rendering the society in itself an economic structure on which the political and legal superstructures are superimposed. This model is replicated and reproduced under the powers of the Superstructural norms, maintaining the societal status quo. Owing to the societal conditions in 1859 (when it was proposed), the model perfectly ties in with the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie narrative.
The Marxist-Leninist theory of the Base Superstructure Model
The BST’s relation with populism, especially with respect to the Marxist-Leninist movement, remains hotly contested with varying interpretations and critiques still being anatomised. Although populism is presented as being radically antithetical to Marxism-Leninism as per Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, historical evidence states otherwise (Clarke, 1998). The Russian Marxist movement gained traction owing to its theorisation being deeply entrenched in the materialist nature of Marxist philosophy. Contemporaneous revolts against the incumbent Tsarian rule found their theoretical basis of an anti-capitalist, anti-feudalistic argument.
This new variant of Leftist populism impacted the peasantry and the intelligentsia differently, introducing a dialectical approach to the perception of the latter. The intelligentsia perfectly fit the description of the Superstructure, owing to their activity being contained in the cultural sphere and their disassociation from the primary economic activities. The Bolsheviks did not consider them as a true social class since the intellectuals could be summarised as proletariat in nature but bourgeoisie in action. However, in the early 20th Century with the rise of Polish and Russian patriotism, these ideological differences rendered their populist movement a different motivation.
The Russian intelligentsia bore traits of both messianism and intellectual elitism (Berlin, Kelly, Hardy & Kelly, 2013). Unlike the materialist incentives of the basal proletariat, they aimed to subvert the then-present superstructure to establish the socialist values espoused by them, albeit a small minority. Marx termed this as ‘utopian socialism’ with reference to the intellectuals’ pursuit of a ‘romantic utopian ideal’ of the social order (Clarke, 1998). Despite the dissimilarity in views, the intellectuals fraternised with the working class in a pan-societal populist movement. The philosophical basis of the intelligentsia drove materialist demands of the working class; the new Russian proletariat identified as a new vehicle of the socialist ideology.
At the heart of Marxist theory, the BST plays a crucial role in bringing about the promised revolution leading to the eventual ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (a concept only later introduced by Lenin in Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy). At the crux of this revolution is a social reformation of the deterministic superstructure, stemming from the class struggle and climaxing in a higher developed productive base, without loss in productivity (Fields, 2017).
A significant feature of the BST is that it likens society to a living organism. A society undergoing the said revolution is analogous to the biological evolution of an organism. The new technologies facilitating socioeconomic progress are termed as the “organic extensions of human society”, in the process of evolving from the “ruling ownership anatomy” to a more productive form. In Das Kapital, Marx notes that a society is always in flux, responding to the natural elements in its surroundings akin to the process put forth in the Darwinian idea of evolution. However, the theory loses support in postmodern academia beyond its inflection into a macro-to-micro outlook (contrary to the initial micro-to-macro comparison). Fields (2017) points this facet of the BST emphatically: while the dynamics of a social revolution can be explained from an individualistic perspective, the nature of individuals in a social sphere is determined by the prevalent social consciousness.
It can be summarised from the following quote from his the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859),
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness” (Marx, 1859).
Arguably the most controversial statement (Fields, 2017) in the Preface, it alludes to the inherently binding nature of a social structure. The oft-contested “social contract”, according to the Preface, goes beyond the protective nature of the State; it is deeply entrenched in the norms dictated by the social order via its unconscious imprinting on the citizens’ psyche. This can further explain the notions of sociocultural norms in the collective consciousness, establishing the proverbial “we, the people ‘’ commonly addressed in populist rhetoric. The BST asserts the reproducibility of the model, which can be credited for the penetration of the commonplace populist ideology today.
Hegemony and Populism Today
Another noteworthy aspect of the Leftist populist discourse is the concept of hegemony. Hegemony can be viewed as the opposite of populism or anti-elitism despite their shared origins in the ‘challenge’ of the generative matrix (Preterossi, 2012). Politico-cultural analysis today extends beyond the realm of superstructural determinism and the issues with the populist notion of ‘constructing a consensus’ for political organisation. Building ideological alliances is a monumental task in itself and it is just the beginning of the possibility of any significant social change. Hence, today attention is being diverted to the hegemonic aspect of theoretical-political thought. Juxtaposed to the people-pandering policies demanded by the vox populi, it serves as an antithesis to the latter.
Bolton and Pitts (2018) delve into the other side, a surging Western, neoliberal hegemony, and its detrimental impact on the categorical apparatus of the Left. Capitalist ideologies of the neoliberal model gained ubiquity as the globalist movement hand-delivered it to the developing and developed nations alike. The steady, promising growth in the Great Moderation from the mid 1980s to 2008, birthed a generation of complacent, right-wing liberals. The period was also characterised by growing economic pressures on the yawning gap of income inequality worldwide, which showed little sign of closing in.
Yet, the successes of the neoliberal model outweighed, or rather outshined, the failures. The political scale had shifted sharply to the right, with little room for the far Left. It was only the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 (GFC) that lent a significant boost to the economic Left. Contemporaneously, Corbynism, in the UK, stood out to be the most notable vestige of the Leftist movements of the past, thriving in a neoliberal hegemony. It gained traction in the politically ambivalent ‘left’ populism contemporaneous to the Occupy Wall Street movement post the GFC (Bolton & Pitts, 2018). The movement can be deemed as the most notable example of a left populist movement in recent times which diverted political attention to the wants of the 99% as opposed to the elite 1%. This division was borrowed from post-Occupy terminology for the (working-class) people versus the (rich) elite. Politico-economic theorists saw the potential in this dichotomy, after what they regarded a conclusive failure of the neoliberal model, in founding a post-capitalist economy. The range of ideas varies from laxer labour laws, increased access to low-cost or free public goods like healthcare, to the complete evisceration of the incumbent system to allow the productive forces autonomy over the socioeconomic order.
Fields, D. (2017). The Productive Base as the Ground of Society and History: Marx’s Base-Superstructure Theory. Retrieved 20 October 2020, from https://urpe.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/the-productive-base-as-the-ground-of-society-and-history-marxs-base-superstructure-theory/#:~:text=Marx%20summarizes%20in%20this%20central,legal%20and%20political%20superstructure%20arises%E2%80%9D.
Marx, K., & Rojas, R. (1977). Economic Manuscripts: Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm
Clarke, S. (1998). Was Lenin a Marxist? The Populist Roots of Marxism-Leninism. Historical Materialism, 3(1), 3–28. doi: 10.1163/156920698100414257
Bolton, M., & Pitts, F. (2018). “‘Things Can and they Will Change’: Class, Postcapitalism and Left Populism”, Corbynism: A Critical Approach (pp. 161–206). Emerald Publishing Limited.