In the 1830s and 1840s, ideology took on the complexity of its twin uses. The term was invoked as both a point of ontological opposition and as a political pejorative, but it also gathered an additional dimension in its struggle for meaning. In Prussia, a variant of the philosophy of the ideal began to arise, one that embraced an abstract view of reality and the religious nature of the state. Perhaps no proponent of this mystical view of the state is better known than Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1731). In the Hegelian view of the world, consciousness arose in a historical process where abstract thought worked upon itself to culminate in an “Absolute Knowledge or Spirit knowing itself as Spirit’ (Hegel, 1807/1966: 808). Reality and history were driven by a “process of becoming in terms of knowledge, a conscious self-mediating process – Spirit externalized and emptied into Time” (Hegel, 1807/1966: 807). As an enacted philosophy it stood as a restoration of mysticism, rationalism and political power; a position often espoused by apologists of the French and Prussian aristocracies. It was within this struggle of ideas and political power that ideology took its critical turn.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820-1995) responded to Hegel’s overly rationalist and idealistic assertions by calling it the “German Ideology” (1832). They invoked the negative connotation of the term ideology, in the Napoleonic sense, to characterize the ideas of the Young Hegelians as illusionary and visionary, serving the interests of state and class power. Marx and Engels offered an alternative to the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the movement. Rather than viewing the world composed of an “absolute spirit” reaching its pinnacle in the Prussian state and its aristocratic based authority, they advanced an enlightened view of the world as derived from historical materialism rather than dialectic based on idealism. The world was not merely composed of immateriality in the form of some historical spirit that worked upon itself as it moved though the ages, it was derived from the material basis of human existence, which gave rise to ideas about the world. Ideology was produced from the conditions in which people live rather than collective ideas producing themselves. Ideas worked upon the human condition in a mutual process of transformation—the Hegelian dialectic inverted. In opposition to the German ideology, Marx and Engels not only stood Hegelian philosophy on its head, but they also created an empirical theory of social change. Social change and therefore history, the development of practice especially in the evolution of political authority and law, came about not from abstract ideas working upon themselves, but through a dialectic that bound together the material conditions of life with emergent ideas about those conditions. Ideology was produced not from the ether of spirit, but rather from experience.
A failure to fully recognize and appreciate the dialectical nature of Marx and Engels’ critique of the German ideology created confusion over the term ideology as evidenced by two common misreadings. First, ideology was often interpreted as merely “false consciousness,” something connected to, but distinct from, actual material conditions. Something found in the superstructure detached from its base. This reading of ideology fails to recognize that ideology emerges from, and in turn affects, the historical and material conditions of productive life—the base. Ideology does not merely run along-side living conditions or class position; it is part and parcel of them. It is derived from the actual living conditions of both the powerful and the powerless. Second, ideology is often read as an intentional distortion or fabrication of the ruling elite—an intentional propaganda. Again a duality between the intentional and unintentional is created that is not implicit in their critique of the German ideology. Intention is also function of the material conditions that produce ideology. So the powerful and the powerless, the intentional and the unintentional, the material and our ideas about it, are bound together in a historical process that brings about both material change and social thought.
The tendency to read Marx and Engels’ critique of the German ideology without emphasis on its dialectical nature has led to substantial misunderstanding of the role of ideology. Consider the following interpretation of their work.
A watershed in the study of the ideology concept was reached in the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who viewed ideology as a system of false ideas, a statement of class position, and a justification for class rule. Ideologies are secondary and unreal, since they are part of the “superstructure” and as such a reflection of the more fundamental material economic “base” (Rejai, 2003: 555).
While Marx and Engels used the term ideology in a pejorative sense to characterize the illusionary nature of the German Ideology, they were careful not to dismiss the power of ideology as a very real system of ideas intertwined with material conditions. In fact, they viewed ideology as a formidable force in the development of history, social relations and domination. The ability to dominate does not simply flow from the construction of ideology at the hands of a few, rather it results from differential control of material resources, which gives rise to privilege in the modes and means of both material and mental production. In their words,
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, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance (Marx and Engels, 1832: XX).
The tendency to read ideology as a mere fiction and reduce it to the realm of illusion contained in the superstructure may also come from a careless reading of comments made by Engels after Marx’s death. When he wrote,
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought (italics added, Engels, 1893).
Fixation with the phrase “false consciousness,” ideology’s history of derogatory and imprecise use, and a selective reading of Marx and Engels’ works led to additional confusion of the meaning of the term. In the same letter Engels went on to explain,
Hanging together with this too is the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction; these gentlemen often almost deliberately forget that once an historic element has been brought into the world by other elements, ultimately by economic facts, it also reacts in its turn and may react on its environment and even on its own causes (Engels, 1893).
Marx and Engels were advancing a theory of social change that was in opposition to the idealist German ideology. Accordingly, their theory tended to place emphasis on the material and economic conditions of life to a greater extent than on the ideas and that explained and often rationalized those conditions. Because of their oppositional ambitions, there is a tendency to read the work as overly deterministic and perhaps as pure economics rather than dialectic between the material and the idea. Engels explained,
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their own rights (Engels, 1890).
Marx and Engels brought a critical element to the meaning of ideology, one that stressed the dialectic nature of reality. In doing so, they stressed the importance that ideology played in material and mental domination.
Victor E. Kappeler, PhD
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Engels, F. (1890). Engels to J. Bloch In Königsberg, London, September 21, 1890. In (Trans. 1972) Marx-Engels Correspondence 1890. Progress Publishers.
Engels, F. (1893). Engels to Franz Mehring, London, July 14, 1893. In Torr, D. (Trans. 1968) Marx-Engels Correspondence 1893. International Publishers.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1807/1966). The phenomenology of mind. (J.B. Baillie, Trans.). London: George Allen & Unwin.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1832/2004). “The German Ideology.” In Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, p. 653-8.
Rejai, M. (2003). Ideology. In The Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Charlottesville VA: University of Virginia Library.