KARL MARX makes different statements about ideology at different points in his career; however, his most straightforward statement about ideology appears in The German Ideology, which he wrote with Frederick Engels. Ideology itself represents the "production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness," all that "men say, imagine, conceive," and include such things as "politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc." (47). Ideology functions as the superstructure of a civilization: the conventions and culture that make up the dominant ideas of a society. The "ruling ideas" of a given epoch are, however, those of the ruling class: "The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of their dominance" (64). Since one goal of ideology is to legitimize those forces in a position of hegemony, it tends to obfuscate the violence and exploitation that often keep a disempowered group in its place (from slaves in tribal society to the peasantry in feudal society to the proletariat in capitalist society). The obfuscation necessarily leads to logical contradictions in the dominant ideology, which Marxism works to uncover by returning to the material conditions of a society: a society's mode of production.

In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels offer up the possibility that one can address the real conditions of human existence, outside of ideological mystification.

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way. (42).

The material conditions existing at a given time period Marx refers to as the means of production. Any given time period's ideology is most clearly revealed by uncovering the material conditions of production: the means of production, as well as the relations of production (the ways the society structures the relations between individuals, particularly through the division of labor), which together make up the mode of production: "life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself" (48). For Marx, it is the materiality of human production that directly influences ideology: "Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" (47). As Marx and Engel explain further in The German Ideology,

Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people's imagination, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will. (46-47)

This belief that one can directly access the real conditions of history (sometimes referred to as "reflection theory" or "vulgar Marxism") is questioned by neo-Marxists, particularly in the wake of Althusser's Lacanian rethinking of ideology. Marx is, in fact, more complicated on this issue, however, since at other times he suggests that some aspects of ideology (for example, literature) can have a semi-autonomous existence; that is, that such cultural products can exert an influence that is at odds with the dominant mode of production. For comparison, see the Althusser module on ideology and the Jameson module on ideology.


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Marx: On Ideology." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/marxism/modules/marxideology.html>.






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