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The Base-Superstructure Hypothesis and the Foundations of Critical Theory

Mediations of Social Life in the 21st Century

ISBN: 978-1-78441-223-4, eISBN: 978-1-78441-222-7

Publication date: 31 October 2014



To defend the thesis that the base-superstructure hypothesis central to Marxist theory is also central paradigm of the tradition of Critical Theory. This is in opposition to those who see this hypothesis as determinist and eliminating the possibilities for the autonomy of social action. In doing so, it is able to retard and atrophy the critical capacities of subjects.


Emphasis on the return to a structural-functionalist understanding of social processes that places this version of Critical Theory against the more domesticated forms that consider “discourse ethics” and an “ethic of recognition” as the normative research program for Critical Theory. Also, an analysis of the purpose and logic of functional arguments and their relation to Marx’s concept of “determination” is undertaken.


The essence of Critical Theory hinges upon the ways that social structures are able to deform and shape structures of consciousness of modern subjects to predispose them to forms of domination and to view the prevailing hierarchical structures of extractive domination as legitimate in some basic sense.

Research limitations/implications

The foundations of Critical Theory need to be rooted in a renewed understanding of the relation between social structure and forms of consciousness. This means a move beyond theories of social practices into the realm of social epistemology as well as the mechanisms of consciousness and their relation to ideology.


Few analyses of the relation between the base and the superstructure or material organization of society and the social-epistemological layer of consciousness delineate the mechanisms involved in shaping consciousness. I undertake an analysis that utilizes insights from the philosophy of mind such as the theory of intentionality as well as the sociological approach to values through Parsons.




Sections of an earlier draft of this paper were originally delivered at a conference on Critical Theory at New York University, April 28, 2013, and later at the 6th Annual Critical Theory Conference of Rome, Italy, May 6, 2013. I benefitted from discussions with Stephen Eric Bronner, Andrew Feenberg, Lauren Langman, and the comments of other participants at both venues.


Thompson, M.J. (2014), "The Base-Superstructure Hypothesis and the Foundations of Critical Theory", Mediations of Social Life in the 21st Century (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Vol. 32), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 161-193.



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