Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology

This is the first of a multi-post series based on a leadoff I gave June 10th, 2016, for a Montréal branch of Fightback: the Canadian Section of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). It approaches the question of ideology from a perspective largely inspired by the structuralist Marxism avowed by Louis Althusser in the late 60s to early 70s.

A prefatory note: Althusser occupies the slightly uncomfortable historical position of having simultaneously given structuralism is clearest theoretical formulation as a critical theory, while demonstrating its limits. Naturally, one asks of the question of ideology, a cui bono – that is, an ideology for whom? from the perspective of which subject? Structuralist critique cannot stand against itself without coming undone – from the perspective of a subject yet to come, or a subject in a different historico-factical situation, what is taken as the material of a science is called ideological, and vice versa. Let it be said that Althusser’s always was an explicitly partisan philosophy. “Class struggle in the field of theory” was for him definitive of philosophy. Thus, that the following presentation is presented from the position of the proletariat as the subject of history, that is, as its motor force, an a priori assumption of the science of historical materialism, should not be considered as a substantive critique, but merely as a partisan difference (with empirical consequences).


Let’s begin with a quote, from the Preface to The German Ideology (1845-6/1932), to help us define our scope.

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.[1]

Our question is a philosophical one: what is ideology? And how does it function? It is also a practical one. How does ideology relate to the oppression and exploitation of the masses in capitalist society? What sorts of material conditions give rise to ideology as an extension of bourgeois power? And, perhaps most importantly, how does one differentiate between ideology and scientific fact? These will be the guiding questions of our present discussion.

First: what is ideology? As Marxists, we are materialists. We are not the sorts of vulgar materialists, who, like Feuerbach, would reduce all of the realm of ideas to the level of material reality, while at the same time holding that the essence of what is material only becomes real in ideology, for example, in Christian theology.[2] Engels skilfully detects this contradiction in Feuerbach’s thought in the 1886 work on the latter.

For Feuerbach, our ability to conceive of an idea so grand as the gods, and to base entire religions around them, showed that ideas somehow have a greater reality than matter. Feuerbach once said of the emergence of rational thought in human subjects as we evolved from the apes, that he agreed with the dialectical materialist view “going backwards, but not forwards”. As dialectical materialists, we argue that rational thought, that consciousness itself, is not beyond matter, but is instead the highest realization of matter. Religion does not surpass matter; religion, at base, has a material reality.

In the same way, ideology has a material existence. This is one of the theses on ideology argued by Louis Althusser, in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”.[3] Ideology exists in the rituals and practices of concrete individuals in material institutions: priests in the Church speaking hocus pocus (‘hoc est corpus meum’) over the Eucharist; Wall Street bankers who perceive the world through the spectacular calculations of bourgeois economics, shuffling about in a panic as the market fluctuates, in a virtual microcosm of the anarchy of capitalist production.

However, if this was all that there was to the substance of ideology, then it would be enough that we seize all of the factories tomorrow in order to topple bourgeois ideology wherever it exists. This is clearly not so. Ideology is an element of the superstructure of bourgeois society. The superstructure is dialectically related to a society’s material base. So, how we function materially produces in us a certain consciousness – ideas about how we ought to function – which we then apply concretely as a way of organizing our labour, along with the productive forces in society. Marx describes the dialectical relation between superstructure and base in The German Ideology, and Althusser further develops this idea in his own work.

This is how, by owning all of the means of production in society, the ruling class also comes to dominate society ideologically. Here, we should recall Marx’s well-known slogan: the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of its ruling class.

Now, how does ideology function – and what does it function to do? The first part of this question, according to Althusser, was not adequately considered by Marx, who instead answers to the second part of the question. Says Althusser,

… it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that ‘men’ ‘represent to themselves’ in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there. It is this relation which is at the centre of every ideological, i.e. imaginary, representation of the real world. It is this relation that contains the ‘cause’ which has to explain the imaginary distortion of the ideological representation of the real world.[4]

Let’s make this a little more clear. If workers represented their real conditions of existence to themselves in ideology, then they would eventually, without fail, develop an advanced class consciousness, simply as a result of the material social relations of their labour. They would recognize themselves as a collective force and will, rather than as individuals, with relative ease. Wouldn’t that simplify the task of the revolutionary party! So, it isn’t the real conditions of the base of society that workers represent to themselves in ideology, but rather the imaginary representations of those conditions, which make up the superstructure of bourgeois society.

For the most part, the working class is not awake to the reality of their exploitation. This is the result of a manufactured social reality imposed by the ruling class, which produces in workers a submissiveness to exploitation. It is not that workers know themselves to be exploited and are unaffected by this fact, but rather that the bourgeois ideology produces a consciousness in individual workers which leads them to believe that their material exploitation is in fact the best of all possible worlds. Ideology is principally a force that reproduces capitalist relations of production, by representing to individuals a positive understanding of themselves as within the framework of capitalist production.

This was the point already made by Marx: “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce.”[5]

To be continued

[1] Marx, The German Ideology (1932). My emphasis.

[2] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy (1886), §2-3.

[3] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970) in On Ideology (New York: Verso, 2009), 39.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Marx (1932), Part I. A: “Idealism and Materialism”. My emphasis.

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One thought on “Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology

  1. Pingback: Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology, pt. II | ways of worldmaking

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