The Ideology Definitions in Marx

The Ideology Definitions in Marx

In order to investigate the ideology in Marx, we first have to look at history of ideology. Afterwards, we can understand the description that Marx brings in the term ’ideology’ better.  Although what comes to our mind at the first glance when hearing upon the term ideology is ‘subjective thinking or misunderstanding ‘, this was not the case at the time of enlightenment.

At the years of enlightenment, ideology which is constituted by ‘idea’ and ‘logy’ had a meaning of scientific idea. That is the say, in contrast to what we think, ideology used to mean a scientific perspective which separates itself from religion and metaphysics. This description was first used in a negative meaning by Napoleon. When Napoleon frees the religious institutions to give education, the supporters of enlightenment criticized him because they thought this decision would be an obstacle to scientific development. On this issue, Napoleon responses them as addressing ‘ideologists’ and with his this usage, he gets the reputation as the first person to use ideology in negative way.

Ideology as understood today , the unity which has a political and social teaching, and which leads a government, a political party, a group of people  in terms of their political, juridical, scientifically, philosophical, religious, moral and aesthetic ideas . Because Marx does not give an exact definition of ideology, we cannot understand what he exactly understands by it. However, it is certain that He infers a negative meaning because for him ideology deceives the conscious and lives a person to live in conflicts. Marx explains this situation as ‘they don’t know but they do’. Ideology for Marx exists as a stain in human’s mind and it is inevitable to destroy it. On the other hand, Marx does not use ideology itself alone. For example, he always uses like ‘germen ideology’ or ‘bourgeois ideology’. By these sentences, we can understand ideology always belongs to a special group.  This may be the reason why Marx does not give a definite definition. To illustrate, bourgeois with the ideology of bourgeois, enforces dominancy on the working class and this pressure is only felt by those workers.

Marx does not talk about an ideology in which all the human beings are affected. We mostly come across with Marx definitions of ideology in ‘German ideology’ Because Marx makes different definitions and he does them in different time periods, some claims that he is conflicted with his definition of ideology. Particularly, in his ‘’ German ideology’, we can see these different definitions. Although Marx has different definitions, in a totality he makes a connection among all of them and at the end he has a sensible perspective.

What Marx understands while he is studying the history of mankind, is that idea is the production which lies behind everything. This production is not only economical but it also is important in the social life or in the constitution of human consciousness. For example, in order to understand society, he states that we have to look at its production. The other elements of society change in terms of its working style. Because of this reason, the elements which constituted the base are related with the means of production and the kind of production. The human being who continuously works and produces labor unlike the other animals produces labor consciously and in a free way.

If Marx talked about something like the nature of human being , this  would not be  most probably a phenomenon created by the economic structures like religion , emotions, or values but it would be labor because no matter what it matters, human being is producing and can free itself only by producing. In such a situation, Marx gives the most apprehension to an individual. With the power an individual has, that is to say labor, the environment of the individual gets its shape.  The realities are not in the ‘reason’ as it is in Hegel but it is in the individual itself.  For Marx the starting point is the individual, labor. The individual produces in order to survive, in order to produce, he or she has to acquaint with the means of production, and in this respect these acquaintance with the means of production requires a communication with the other people. This is what turns and individually-structured   production into a social phenomenon.

For Marx the production relations and the means of production which constitute the bases create the superstructure. Ideas, values, beliefs and political systems are shaped by the bases constituted by the production relations. For example, in a country like China the workers are paid very little amount of money and although these group of people have the majority of the society, how don’t they rebel? The answer for this question according to Marx is that the production style makes a value system and is shaped by those values. That is to say, there is no rebel in the religion or values of Chinese people and the reason of this is the values constituted in order to prevent their rebellions. Marx explains this view in this way:  It is the human being that produces its own ideas and understandings. However they cannot see what lies behind these values but they assume that the reality is the values that labor produces, that is to say the individual. Similarly, labor producing frees, nevertheless, the people selling their labors become the slaves of the others. In a parallel way, despite the state’s being of an abstract phenomenon which individual creates, after having been created it, it makes itself independent, and it rules people and for its own benefits makes the people slave for itself. How come do the people cannot see this reversed phenomenon? At this point, Marx definition of ideology takes role. Marx explains this situation like that : ‘’ if in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life- process as the inversion of objects on the retina from their physical life–process.’’(Tucker, 1978, p.154) At this point ideology creates a false consciousness in human mind and prevents it from seeing the reality.

As Marx defines ideology, he explains also the relation between religion and ideology. Because the religion is an element that is produced by bases, the labor relations, it does not have a preliminary importance. It depends on economic bases.  The religion is misunderstood by the society with the power of ideology to conflict and deceive. In his criticizing the religion, Marx is influenced by Feuerbach. According to Feuerbach, religion is a concept which human beings create because of their fears and god is a concept to love (Parkan, 2010). However, although these concepts are abstractly created, they gain more authenticity than the material reality.

Though created by human beings, religion gains a power and value above the level of human beings and slaves them by legislating. At this point, Feuerbach points out that people confuse what is subject and what is the predicate. For example , ‘’ Jesus suffered for us’’  shows us that human beings give a god-like characteristic to Jesus and they worship him and they regard themselves as sub-beings under him.  What must be is ‘’suffering for others is divine’’ because here the important thing is the predicate. It is the predicate which attributes the value to man (Parkan, 2010). Why do people give more importance to Jesus rather than suffering? Here the important thing is the starting point. Marx states that everything is emerged from this world including the divine things. Unlike this, Hegel finds a ‘reason’ and claims it is the reason which shapes man’s behaviors.  Marx explains this point as indicated here: “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. We set out real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence” (Tucker, 1978, p.154). According to Marx there is no point for a man in looking at the world from heaven. Also, there is no benefit. The things produced by the economic bases can never be more important than economy. In this respect, religion is a case which the historical process brings man into. Inevitably, human beings demand and wish a compensation for the sufferings by creating different worlds they award themselves.

If there is religion in a society then it means that society is not free because religion shows the conflicts in that society. However, Marx does not declare war against religion. Even if society gets rid of religion, this does not mean that it has become free. The main concern here is to fix the economic relations which create confusion in bases like religion. When this is achieved there will be no need to religion.

Again in the German ideology, we encounter another definition and this definition mostliy comes from the dominancy of the ruling class. Individual can recognize itself as long as he or she possesses labor. In this respect, product is something like a mirror of the individual. Having a labor is provided with controlling the means of production. Because the all historical process changes in relation to values, ethics, religion, and philosophy, these people who have the means of production will write the history of mankind according to themselves. Since bourgeois possesses the means of production it tries its own history and does this with regards to its own benefits. For example, the phenomena like religion, values and ethics are supported by bourgeois because with them bourgeois does its own work more easily and making an obstacle for the workers to understand truth, the labor. In this case, the worker starts to think not in his\ her own way but in bourgeois’ way and he\she becomes the object of thought not the subject. This case leads to workers alienation towards themselves. Marks explains this like that ‘’ 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”. (Tucker, 1978, p.172)  Here Marx emphasizes that thought and consciousness is constituted by the environment. That is to say, production style determinates our thought, us. If the production style is in other hands, it means that our ideas are determined by others.  With this, bourgeois rules the working class and creates illusions to prevent them from seeing the truth.

The last ideology definition of Marx is positive unlike the others. Ideology which has produced conflicts so far, leads the individuals to realize the situation because it produces more conflicts. As known, the base constituted by the production relations is the power of the superstructure where ideas experiences and values constitute. The definitions of ideology so far has focused on the conflicts occurred in the superstructure. The more these conflicts occur, the more working class will gain consciousness and capitalism will leave its position to socialism. Marx explains the situation as such: “With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life”(Tucker, 1978, p. 169).

This definition is indeed defined as the result of the other definitions. Marx indicates what he wants to do at this definition. As known, capitalism always produces confusion like religion, ethics, and politics. Marx produces an ideology as a product of capitalism. By means of this ideology, he wanted to affect individual’s ideas. However, Marx declared war against ideology as an ideology. During this war, he benefited the confusions of the system. Marx examples the capitalism to a sorcerer producing sorcery and afterwards this sorcerer is destroyed by its own sorcery. For example, the bourgeois who possesses the means of production at the moment, will lose its possession and when proletariat get the means of production, socialism will arise. Similarly, Marx is producing an ideology which will cause the destruction of capitalism. When Marx system and the conflicts of capitalism meet, they will destroy each other. As a result of this, there arises a free individual and ideology as a stain in human mind disappears.

Generally, Marx conceives ideology as a deceiver for thinking, and to get rid of the situation is inevitable because of the conflicts. However, Lois Althusser  who has wide range of studies on ideology disagrees with Marx on this issue. For Althusser , to get rid of ideology is not easy as it is in Marx , rather it is impossible. Althusser considers ideology as not something to get rid of and not a phenomenon which is effective on a specific class.(Parkan, 2010). Ideology has no history. For Althusser, the economic structure or the base does not work on its own. Ideology which is an element of superstructure bases on different realities. He gets rid of the border between base and superstructure, and puts ideology in a more central location. Nevertheless, ideology in Marx is less important and a changeable phenomenon. Ideology is an effect on the structure over the subject. It is not only a mental process, it is also practical. It is a practice which emerges in the life and from the life. To illustrate, in Independency war, fight of people rooted from religion. People were ignoring their lives for the sake of religion. At this point, it cannot be said that people producing ideas from and economical ways. In contrast, a superstructure like religion makes them move. At this point the ideology of Althusser gains a more practical and material meaning.

For Althusser an ideology is not a bunch of ideas which a class imposes on another. It is a collection of practices in which all of the classes take place and coming from past through future. This thought does not comply with Marx the definition ideology because ideology is a stuff which the ruling class applies on the others. At this point Althusser says that ideology and thought cannot be independent from each other. Because of this reason, it influences all the classes.

As a human being conceives the alter world, s/he has not an empty mind. Human beings understand by categories. It is not possible to get rid of these categories. Human beings think with these categories. Althusser has the same perspective with Kant in terms of this. For him, there is object for us and real object. From a social perspective, reality does not show itself as itself. However, in order to get scientific results, we must get close to real object. Althusser is criticized widely because he says it is impossible to get rid of ideological categories because in Marx it is necessary to get rid of ideology for socialism.

All in all, we encounter different definitions of ideologies in Marx writings. These in general has a negative effect on the society and makes an obstacle for the reality to be seen. Because of this reason, it is a situation which is to be got rid of. However, at the same time with the help of these effects, human beings can realize the conflicts of the capitalism. Socialism can come thanks to these conflicts.


Tucker, R.C. (ed.). (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader (2nd ed).New York-London: W.W. Norton and Company

Parkan, B. (2010). Mentoring in undergraduate education: Philosophy of Marx. 25  October 2010.


+ There are no comments

Add yours