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
Since one goal of ideology is to legitimize those forces in a position
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
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