Karl Marx on Ideology

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


Considered to have revived the term. In this sense, most scholarly discussions on the definition of ideology take Marx's views to be at their centre. Definitions of ideology are commonly split between "Marxist" or "non Marxist." For example, see Boudon [17-33]. One warning -- there is no single Marxist definition of ideology, for throughout Marx's writing contradictory views on ideology have been raised. From the popular definitions of "false consciousness" to the sustaining of class interests, Marx has been read in extremely diverse and dissimilar ways. Here are some examples from Barrett (Barrett has identified six of them, for time and space reasons, only a few are listed here):

Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. -- real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process. [Quoted by Barrett, 1991: 4 61

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. ...We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life. [Quoted in Barrett: 6]

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, ie. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships. [Quoted in Barrett: 9]

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