Wednesday, 25 February 2009


How does the economic system influence something as subjective and seemingly autonomous as a person’s creativity? The answer lies in the concept of ideology.

Marx and Engels did not invent this, but it plays an essential part in their theory. They taught that the ideas of a given epoch were the product of its ‘dominant material relationships, grasped as ideas’ [1]. Ideology is part of the superstructure and therefore flows from the mode of production.

Works of art are not mysterious things snatched from the ether, nor are they the unique offspring of individual psychology. Artists are, like all humans, social beings, and they draw upon the most prominent ways of seeing in the culture or cultures of which they are a part. These ways of seeing in turn are dependent upon the particular social relations of that time and place. By ‘ideology’ we do not mean a formal set of doctrines, but the whole complex of ideas, ethics, and imaginings which we live and breathe, often unawares, as we go about our lives.

Even such a seeming constant as love is expressed in different forms depending upon the social conditions of the time. The way in which we understand and express our feelings of love is determined by many aspects: the family structure, the relative equality (or inequality) of the sexes, our social expectations, and so on. Many of the forms in which love is expressed in the West today, such as the ‘candlelit dinner for two’ and the sending of Valentine’s cards, are of very recent and culturally specific provenance.

The illusion that consciousness is primary

We do not choose the ways of seeing that surround us — that is an accident of our birth. In practice, although ideology is the product of material relationships, we often have the impression that the reverse is true — that our consciousness is primary. Engels provided an explanation for this, rooted in the development of human society. As we increased our productivity, we achieved a more sophisticated division of labour, and began to build complex structures of law, religion and politics.

In the face of all these images, which appeared in the first place to be products of the mind and seemed to dominate human societies, the more modest productions of the working hand retreated into the background, the more so since the mind that planned the labour was able, at a very early stage in the development of society (for example, already in the primitive family), to have the labour that had been planned carried out by other hands than its own. All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thought instead of their needs (which in any case are reflected and perceived in the mind); and so in the course of time there emerged that idealistic world outlook which, especially since the fall of the world of antiquity, has dominated men’s minds.[2]

Marx saw the origins of this in the division of labour:

The division of labour becomes a real division only when a distinction between material and mental labour arises. From this moment on, consciousness can be effectively persuaded that something else exists besides the consciousness of existing praxis.[3]

Our awareness of the power of our consciousness, and its visible effect upon the material world, creates the impression that life is determined by it. In fact the ideas through which people define themselves and make assumptions about what is true are ultimately conditioned by the mode of production.

Dominance of the ruling class

The relationship between the structures of society and the works of art created within that society is hardly controversial. “One cannot live in society,” wrote Lenin, “and be free from society.”[4] It is a small step from recognising that, to recognising that the power relationships within human society will exert their own influence. We have quoted elsewhere part of Marx and Engels’ famous declaration from the Communist Manifesto:

What else does the history of ideas prove than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.[5]

A couple of years earlier they had already formulated the theory:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. 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, 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.[6]

This is well known in the adage that ‘the victors write the history books.’ And it is not difficult to see how this dominance is achieved. The ruling class controls the great majority of the wealth; the publication houses and television stations; the curriculum of schools and universities; bodies of armed men who can arrest or even execute people who propose alternative views, and so on. It uses these powerful means to influence what ideas are disseminated in society, and make sure that those ideas are agreeable to its interests.

The bourgeoisie, currently the ruling class in three quarters of the world, requires a system of commodity exchange and waged labour. In order for this mode of production to function smoothly, the bourgeoisie requires not only capital, a class of wage labourers, markets to sell products to, and so on, but ideological institutions, assumptions and ideas that encourage everyone involved to co-operate with it as uncomplainingly as possible. These ideas include the belief in the moral right to private property, the importance of obeying bourgeois laws, the capitalist’s right to extract profit from his or her workforce, nationalism as a means of mobilising workers behind military adventures, cynicism about or outright hostility towards alternative forms of society, and so on.

From the ruling class point of view, ideology is most effective when it obscures oppression and the great majority of people take the social relations of their time for granted, as part of an eternal, and therefore unchangeable, condition. If the proletariat were to understand with full clarity the structure of capitalist society, it could and would overthrow it with ease. The army would refuse to fight for the ruling class, the workers would take over the means of production and control of the state, and we could build a better world. Instead, many workers align themselves behind their oppressors, and more again are politically apathetic, because of the norms set by the dominant ideology — a problem known as false consciousness. It is the tremendous obstacle posed by ideology that makes it necessary to fight intense political battles to bring about change.

We may take religion as the best proof that a proposition that cannot be proved even to exist at all may still persist and exert influence over our minds and actions.

No ruling ideology announces itself as such. Bourgeois statesmen never refer to their ‘capitalist ideology’. Instead ideology is portrayed as ‘common sense’ confirmed by historical experience. For centuries it was claimed that men were naturally superior to women, drawing support from the fact that men have dominated society since records began. Ideology’s claims become eternal facts of human society and the universe, against which it is futile to struggle. Capitalism, instead of being a historical phase of human society, is presented as the system most in tune with human nature and therefore the most practical. It is also mentioned relatively rarely: euphemisms like ‘democracy’ or ‘the free world’ are preferred [7].

Active Marxists are very familiar with the constant battle against false assertions that constitutes so much political work inside the bourgeois state. Most of us, even when apolitical, are aware on some level that the world does not match the official account of it: we are told our society is democratic, but observe the inaccessibility and secretiveness of our rulers; we are told it is broadly benign but see body-bags returning from ‘our’ aggression abroad. For a comment on political rhetoric we may turn to George Orwell, whose scathing observations from 1946 sound very contemporary:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.[8]

Thus there is widespread cynicism, at least in the West, because people are aware of being dealt with dishonestly but have no confidence in an alternative.

Although ‘false consciousness’ is a key aspect of ideology, it is important to remember that ideology can not be reduced to it. Marxism is itself an ideology, and can be studied as such self-consciously. Ideology is not entirely illusion: it arises out of actual conditions and the reality of those conditions survives within it. For this reason contradictions arise that create the space for the actual social relationships to become clear. If it were not possible to overcome false consciousness, then the Russian and other revolutions could never have happened.


If the economy ruled every aspect of social life, then only the economy would be worthy of study. Art, so heavily determined that it had no capacity to influence society, would lose its value as art and became merely an over-imaginative and subjective copy of external facts. In these circumstances, a novel such as Heart of Darkness could offer no insight into imperialism that couldn’t be divined by reading the figures on Congolese rubber exports. Therefore it is important not to take a rigid or deterministic approach to Marxist theory — a question we will address in the next post.

This article cannot explore all the complexities of the concept of ideology, not least because Marx and Engels’ original theory has been subject to important further development by, for example, Gramsci, Althusser and Lucien Goldmann. This can only serve as a general introduction. We shall return to the question many times over the course of the blog to discuss controversies, flesh out the idea further, and explore its particular application to the arts.

[1] Marx and Engels, from Part 1 section B, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’ in The German Ideology (1845).
[2] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[3] Marx and Engels, from Chapter 1, section A, ‘History: Fundamental Conditions’ from The German Ideology (1845).
[4] Lenin, Party Organisation and Party Literature (1905).
[5] Marx and Engels, ‘Proletarians and Communists’, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
[6] Marx and Engels, from Part 1 section B, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’ in The German Ideology (1845).
[7] History has shown that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Most of the western capitalist countries have practised universal adult suffrage for only a short time, and many — such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany and Greece — have spent long periods as dictatorships.
[8] From his article Politics and the English Language (1946). Orwell criticises Marxist writing too in this essay, and writers of every kind may benefit from it. I should perhaps make sure it is clear that Orwell in this quote is not actually defending dropping atom bombs, etc — he is explaining that the motivations of various governments in committing such acts are unacceptable both to many members of the political parties responsible and to the public in general.

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