Workers Hammer No. 238

Spring 2017


On ideology

The following article originally appeared in Workers Vanguard no 1105 (10 February 2017) as a correction to the article reprinted on page 12 as “US Democrats, Republicans: enemies of workers and oppressed”.

In the article, “For a Revolutionary Workers Party!” (Workers Vanguard no 1103, 13 January), we wrote: “Today, our struggle is mainly ideological — to motivate Marxism against the purveyors of false perspectives that bind the labor movement and the oppressed to their exploiters and oppressors through the Democratic Party.” While our struggle today is to motivate Marxism, it is wrong to describe this task as “ideological”. Ideology is itself false consciousness. It is idealism, the presentation of ideas as independent of material reality. Marxism is not ideological; it is conscious. Historical materialism is a science whose theories are based on and tested in material reality.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels formulated the materialist conception of history as the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement. In The German Ideology — written in 1845-46 but not published until 1932 — they asserted: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Against idealism, they argued: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men — the language of real life.” Pointing to ideology as false consciousness, they wrote:

“Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious being, and the being of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their relations 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.”

Nearly five decades later Engels reiterated the same point in a July 1893 letter to Franz Mehring. Engels praised Mehring’s essay On Historical Materialism, which drew on the works of Marx and Engels and, in Engels’ words, “brilliantly collated the essentials”. At the same time, Engels noted, “Only one point has been omitted, a point which, however, was never given sufficient weight by Marx and myself in our work.” The omission is on ideology. As Engels described:

“Ideology is a process which is, it is true, carried out consciously by what we call a thinker, but with a consciousness that is spurious. The actual motives by which he is impelled remain hidden from him, for otherwise it would not be an ideological process. Hence the motives he supposes himself to have are either spurious or illusory.”

On occasion, Marxists like VI Lenin and Leon Trotsky used the term “ideological struggle” to mean political struggle. But their framework was one of dialectical materialism, which stands in opposition to idealism. In his 1893 letter, Engels pointed to idealists’ inability to grasp historical development: “What has above all deluded the majority of people is this semblance of an independent history of political constitutions, legal systems and ideological conceptions in each individual sphere.” He mocked the idealist view of history as “merely the fruits of a mental process” with the following example: “If Richard Cœur-de-Lion and Philip Augustus had introduced free trade instead of becoming involved in the Crusades, we would have been spared five hundred years of misery and folly.”

It is only with the development of large-scale industry that the material conditions were created for the abolition of private property in the means of production. Our task is to intervene in struggles of the working class and oppressed with the Marxist programme for proletarian, communist revolution.