Part 4: Ideologies - A. J. Baker

1958 text from AJ Baker on anarchism and ideology.

The word "ideologie," coined about 1797, to mean simply "the science of ideas," was given a political application when Napoleon referred contemptuously to political idealists and reformers as "ideologues," and in this sense was taken over and expanded by Marx. But, although largely because of Marx, "ideology" and "ideological" are fashionable political words to-day, their current use ignores what was definite and distinctive in Marx's theory of ideologies. At the same time this theory has been largely neglected by commentators on Marxism. (1) It is, therefore, worth recalling Marx's theory and showing how a defensible, general view of ideologies emerges from a critical study of it.


For Marx ideologies arise in the first place in his account of the ruling ideas of each age as being an expression of the material conditions of the ruling class. By extension each class is said to have its appropriate ideology, so that the class struggle is accompanied by a corresponding battle of ideologies. In a well-known passage Marx says: "The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." (2) This is the ground for such statements on ideology as the following: "If in all ideology men and their circumstances 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." Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology corresponding forms of consciousness, retain the semblance of independence." (3)

So far ideologies, as ideas or sets of ideas dependent on material economic conditions, are merely adjuncts to Marx's theory of historical materialism. (This theory will not be discussed here; it can simply be noted in line with familiar criticism that historical materialism, taken literally, leads to the logical and causal errors of monism, and wrongly tries to reduce to economic factors other equally real factors, such as political, administrative and scientific activities.) If this were all that Marx meant, nothing additional would be conveyed by speaking of "ideologies" instead of "ideas." But what is, according to Marx, distinctive about an ideology, what makes it more than merely a dependent reflection of economic conditions, is that it is essentially an illusory or distorted idea, belief, theory or philosophy, an idea which masquerades as something other than it is. Even when Marx talks in this way, however, we have to distinguish what is just an echo of his historical materialism from what is not. It is commonly not noticed that there is an ambiguity in Marx's references to ideologies as illusions or as disguising their real content. An idea or belief may be illusory or distorted because it involves the general error (according to Marx) of denying historical materialism; i.e., of being taken to be as real as or to have a causal role independent of economic forces (cf. Engels' statement that an ideology is "occupation with thoughts as with independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own laws", (4). But when Marx refers, for instance, to the aristocratic concepts of honour and loyalty and the bourgeois concepts of freedom and equality as examples of ideology, he is indicating that ideologies, unlike some other ideas, are distorted or subject to illusions in a specific way; they appear to state or advocate certain specific things, when what they are really doing is advocating certain other specific things. It is this kind of illusion that "The German Ideology" emphasises. ", conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood." "Each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, put in an ideal form." "Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true."

Emphasis has to be placed on this distinction between "ideas" and "ideologies" in order to deal with ambiguities that arise in Marxism about the status of science and the status of proletarian ideas. The two questions come together because of the claim that Marxism itself as "scientific socialism" is both a science. and the expression of proletarian interests and policies.

All science is sometimes implied by Marxists to be ideology, as when they insist on their theory of relative truth. According to this, no view, including the Marxist view itself, has objective or absolute truth; each view (as "superstructure:') is relative to the social conditions prevailing at the time it is presented. There is some dispute about whether Marx at any time meant this to apply to non-social views and hence to natural science: peculiar observations about the dialectics of nature certainly imply that there is bourgeois physics, bourgeois mathematics, and so on, but it has been argued (e.g. by Sidney Hook) that this was a flight of fancy of Engels but not of Marx. Leaving this aside, if we confine ourselves to social science, on the simple superstructure and relative truth view, it would follow that any social theory or science is a class one, so that there would be no distinction in respect of truth between Marxism and other social views; all would be relative and forms of ideology. Despite this, however, Marx spent a good deal of time showing the unscientific or false character of bourgeois views (e.g., economic views) and he was led to make the often-quoted statement: "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 transformations of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophical-in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.." (5) The clear implications here that the study of social conditions (as well as natural science) can be precise and correct goes against the simple, ideas=superstructure, view; it is implied that though the study of social conditions will itself have social conditions, unlike ideology, it need not be distorted by those conditions and can discover genuine or objective truths.

The same qualifications of the superstructure model led Marx to treat the ideas or views of the working class as uncooridinate with those of other classes. This contrast he and Engels marked by reserving "ideology" as a derogatory label for the views of the other classes. But we need to notice that in this they differ from Lenin and later Communists, who speak freely of the "proletarian ideology." For example, Lenin (in emphasizing the need for a proletarian vanguard, said: "They fail to understand that an ideologist is worthy of that name only when he marches ahead of the spontaneous movement," and thus used "proletarian ideologists" in a favourable fashion; while in saying: "In a society torn by class contradictions there can be no extra-class or super-class ideology," he also denied what is precisely a key feature of ideologies according to Marx - to purport to speak in the name of all classes. No doubt this is partly just a terminological difference, but even so, Marx's use has more content and is the more defensible, for the use of "ideology" by Lenin and his successors (as well as by our own newspapers and political spokesmen) deprives the word of a specific use by obscuring altogether Marx's contrast between ideological and non-ideological expressions of social views and policies.


Let us, then, insist with Marx on a distinction between ideology and non-ideology. We may, however, still criticise his treatment of proletarian ideas and policies as different in nature from those of the other classes. What is offered as a straightforward statement of the difference, that the ideas of the working class are superstructure which accurately reflect the coming economic structure of society, whereas the ideas of the bourgeoisie are necessarily distorted and ideological reflections, proves difficult to disentangle from the Hegalian metaphysics that remain in Marxism. The distinction between accurate and distorted reflections, along with the associated distinctions between real and illusory and between conscious and unconscious interests or aims is closely connected with Marx's theory of the "contradictions of capitalism" and of the inevitability of socialism. The view is that since the capitalist class is by nature incompatible with impending economic developments, it can have only an illusory consciousness of society, whereas the proletariat by its coming in consciousness in an undistorted way (or even by being that through that through which society is coming to consciousness of itself) is, in fact, accelerating changes that are in its own interests. An example of this type of argument is given by the concept of self-alienation which Marx took over from Hegel. Arguing that private-property and the proletariat are contradictory opposites, Marx says: "The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power: it has in it a semblance of human existence. The class of the Proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation: it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence." He goes on to argue that the self-alienation of the proletariat will of necessity be overcome. "Private property drives itself in its economic movement towards its own dissolution, only, however, through a development which does not depend on it, of which it is unconscious and which takes place against its will, through the very nature of things; only inasmuch as it produces the proletariat as proletariat, that misery conscious of its spiritual and physical misery, that dehumanisation conscious of its dehumanisation and, therefore, self-abolishing. The proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounced on itself by begetting the proletariat." (6) Without taking up finer questions such as whether concepts like self-alienation and self-consciousness have any factual content when applied to classes, it is clear that the distinctions made depend on two assumptions: (i) that society is of necessity changing its economic structure to socialism. and (ii) that the impending structure is the criterion for the reality or unreality of the outlook of a class. But these assumptions stand only if we accept the literal theory of the contradictions of capitalism and thereby make the category mistake of believing that there can be logical contradictions between things. Suppose instead we interpret this theory as referring to a social conflict between equally real forces. It then follows, of course, that if the proletariat wins the bourgeoisie will suffer and vice versa, but there is nothing in this to show that the one class is more, or less, alienated from itself, or subject to illusions about its "real interests," than the other.

If we treat the Marxist view, not as system of necessary truths, but as an empirical account of social situations, we may reformulate Marx's distinction between the outlook of the proletariat and those of the other classes as follows: Ideology has been an essential accompaniment of all previous ruling and revolutionary classes. In the case of slave-owners, feudalists and the bourgeoisie, their professed social and political policies, their legal and ethical theories, philosophies and religions, have all been ideological disguises for social demands in the interests of their class. Without ideology the bourgeoisie, for instance, could not have enlisted sufficient support to overthrow the feudal system or to remain in power. But the working class can succeed in its revolutionary struggle with the ruling capitalist class without disguising its real aims and interests by ideology. It can do this because (perhaps) the existence of so many more proletarians obviates the aid of other classes in obtaining power, and because the economy it aims at will contain no classes to be exploited and so pacified by ideology.

This picture of an end to ideology, however, ignores historical reality. Apart from criticisms of the notion of the classless society, which is itself a piece of consolatory ideology, the prediction that an undivided proletariat will rationally emancipate itself, forgets that the proletariat will require leaders or emancipators who have. or when they capture State power will come to have, special interests and an accompanying ideology of their own. The examples available since Marx's time of successful revolutions made in the name of the proletariat show that there has been an ample, continued occurrence of ideology. Within Communist countries the differentiation of groups according to the power, status and economic advantage they possess has been accompanied (as in persisting capitalist countries) by ideological beliefs which camouflage the favours received by ruling groups at the expense of those who continue to be ruled. That this is an outcome that could have been anticipated is quite clearly indicated in the following unqualified statement by Marx of what happens when one ruling class displaces another:

"Each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, put in an ideal form: it will give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution appears from the very start, merely because it is opposed to a class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society; it appears as the whole class of society confronting the one ruling class. It can do this because, to start with, its interest really is more connected with the common interest of all other non-ruling classes, because under the pressure of conditions its interest has not yet been able to develop as the particular interest of a particular class. Its victory, therefore, benefits also many individuals of the other classes who are not winning a dominant position, but only in so far as it now puts these individuals in a position to raise themselves into the ruling class. When the French bourgeoisie overthrew the power of the aristocracy, it thereby made it possible for many proletarians to raise themselves above the proletariat, but only in so far as they became bourgeois." ("The German Ideology.")

But Marx forgot all this when he came to talk about the proletarian revolution, with the ironical result that his own writings have provided the vocabulary and concepts for the ideology of a new ruling class of managers and State officials. For the same reason, Lenin was, after all, right, but unwittingly, when he spoke of the "proletarian ideology."


In reconstructing Marx's theory, we need first to meet a charge that is sometimes made against the entire account of ideologies, viz., that it is really an elaborate argumentum ad hominum, since it replaces considered discussion of views and policies by an attack on motives. H.B. Action, for instance, cautiously suggests this when he says: "The unmasking of ideologies , in the sense of showing the class interests that prompt them, is only in place when the belief that is thus unmasked has already been shown to be false. Thus, quite apart from questions of good manners that may differ form place to place and time to time, no controversalist is entitled to refer to his opponent's motives unless the arguments that his opponent has used have been shown by argument to be untenable." This is a salutory comment on the logic of Marxists themselves, many of whom regularly evade issues by confusing appeals to motives or class origins with criticisms of beliefs. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to distinguish logical criticism from social theory, and we have to stress what Acton does not stress, that as an independent contribution to social theory the study of ideologies is precisely the study of the motives, or rather the social reasons, for the presentation of certain views. Not all studies of the man are argumenta ad hominem; we may criticise beliefs, but we may also independently study the motives men have for their beliefs (Acton obscures this and appears to think our main or only interest is in argument when he speaks of our being entitled to refer to motives only under special conditions). These are two distinct procedures, both of which are, in fact, employed when we class beliefs as "ideologies." On the one hand (though this has not been the aim of this paper), we can present philosophical criticisms of the beliefs themselves; to mention obvious candidates, it has often been argued by realistic thinkers that the key doctrines of religion, traditional ethics and political philosophy, along with those of dialectical materialism, are (apart from having various inconsistent formulations) taken at their face value, false or, more pointedly, logically absurd. On the other hand, as students of society we may study the social origins and functions of ideological beliefs and try to solve the problem of why they are so widespread and politically influential.

What we can disentangle from Marx's account of class beliefs, particularly of bourgeois beliefs, is a theory of ideology which can be generalised to take in far more than "class" beliefs. For it is to be stressed that Marx's rigid class categories (limited as they are to economic divisions) do not do justice to the variety of social conflicts, even if a new class of bureaucrats and managers is added to them. There are important variations amongst "the bourgeoisie" and "the working class," as well as amongst "bureaucrats," or, what comes to the same thing, there are in society many groups and organisations (along with different groups, different and competing forms of activity, within these) which cut across the class categories. As a result, we have to speak guardedly of class ideologies and recognise the much more ramified role of ideology in society. We have to recognise that as well as such broad ideologies as national, class and religious ideologies, there are many other sets of beliefs whose content and social function is ideological. There is, for example, a distinctive trade union ideology, a distinctive academic ideology; industrial experts, lawyers and army officers, for that matter, real estate agents and sporting officials, usually have a special ideology of their own; and moreover, in the case of all of these, as well as the ideology, i.e., the typical or prevailing one, there may also be competing or minority ideologies. There are, of course, differences in the conceptual richness or poverty of these ideologies: and the more special ideologies are usually derivatives in the sense that their main concepts are usually borrowed from well-established ideologies, but they are separate ideologies because (to anticipate following discussion) what it is that they distort or rationalise depends on the particular type of social organisation with which they are connected. (Naturally, these various ideologies cannot be discussed or even illustrated in the present brief paper; doing so is really what the major part of libertarian day-to-day criticism consists in.)

The views or beliefs Marx labeled "bourgeois ideology and all other ideological views have this in common: taken literally, they appear to discuss, justify or advocate certain things, but the disguised, unconscious, social function they really have is that of advancing specific but unmentioned social interests (and of obstructing other specific but unmentioned social interests). They are "disguised" because they contrast with undisguised formulations; i.e., ones which explicitly and unambiguously indicate what interests are being advanced and why; they are "unconscious" because the persons who believe them are unaware of their disguised, actual function. This is the type of process which Marx illustrated many times; for example, when he refers to the inappropriate Roman terms in which the French Revolutionaries thought of themselves: "Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre. Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society" (7) ; when in discussing the 1848 Revolution he speaks of replacing "the inscription: 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite' by the unambiguous words: 'Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery' or when he refers to religion as "the opium of the people," i.e., as an opiate to compensate people for their frustrations (8), and speaks of "dissolving the religious world and revealing its secular foundations" and of the earthly family as "the secret of the holy family." (9) As Engels summed it up (though with an ambiguous first sentence) "Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process." (10)

There is thus a close parallel between Marx's account of ideology and the psychological explanations introduced by Freud. Marx draws attention to the operation in the social sphere of mechanisms similar to such Freudian ones as unconscious motivation, rationalisation, substitution and displacement. According to Freud, for instance, the motive for a line of action may be rationalised , i.e. the real but unacceptable reason replaced by a spurious reason or a repressed wish, blocked in one direction, may receive a disguised outlet in a different direction. Equally, according to Marx, a social group, like the French bourgeoisie of 1848, may rationalise the motives for its use of coercion, or, like frustrated members of a religious sect, may find in comforting beliefs a substitute way of gratifying its social wishes. In the case of ideology, of course, concepts and beliefs, as distinct from neurotic symptoms and dream formations, are the outcome of the distorting processes. But it is useful to illustrate ideological concept formation by a further Freudian analogy. Parallel to the Freudian account of dream-work and of the distinction between the manifest and latent contents of a dream, we have, as it were, a type of social fantasy or dream-work which results in a manifest content of ideological concepts, subject to the complexities of secondary elaboration, so that they emerge as political ideals, moral fiats, religious beliefs, conceptions of the common interest of society, and so on. But the latent content, the interpretation, of this ideological work, what helps to stimulate it and what it socially satisfies (though in an inadequate way) are down to earth demands or wishes that arise under the pressures of social existence. (The part of Freud's work closest to that of Marx, and the best detailed study of a particular ideology, is his study of religion, "The Future of an Illusion.")

It is to be emphasised that the formation of ideological concepts and beliefs, influenced by tradition and past ideas and emerging in response to particular social tensions, is an unconscious and usually a slow process. For Marx's references to the disguised or distorted character of ideologies have often been wrongly construed as claim that cynical, unscrupulous manipulation rules in politics and elsewhere, that it is just a matter of captains of industry, politicians, bureaucrats, pressure groups, and so on, deliberately setting out to provide suitable propaganda for the gullible masses. No doubt calculated propaganda, along with deliberate trickery, political and conscious careerism, and so on, are inseparable from political and related activities, but this is far from accounting for the role of ideology. Deliberate political propaganda, for instance, like advertising, can proceed by repetition, distortion, omission and straight forward lies, but its success on any large scale requires: (a) the existence of propagandists captured by the views they are presenting, caught up in the social activities out of which the views arise (cf. the characteristic rationalisations of most journalists and political party workers) and (b) an appeal to particular demands or frustrations arising out of existing social circumstances (in Aldous Huxley's words: "The propagandist is man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain"). For example, when Hitler in Mein Kampf suggested that with a propaganda campaign on sufficiently large scale the mass of the people can be made to believe anything, he wrongly assumed that propagandists are exempt from ideology and can intervene in society as they please; but, in fact, the later success of his own propaganda depended on the presence of a Nazi Party whose members by no means saw through the views they expressed, and on an appeal to existing social forces receptive to an ideology of nationalism and antisemitism.

The picture of machiavellian power-seekers and of their manipulation of ideology is thus too simple; it over-estimates the role of conscious decisions by individual persons and neglects the fact that ideologies, whether of a widespread or a special kind, arise in the course of social activities and capture members of dominant groups no less than those who are dominated. Ideologies help to disarm potential opponents by obscuring and compensating for their social frustrations, but they also help groups which seek to impose their policies on others to rationalise their possession of, or search for, power and privilege, and to impart strength and enthusiasm to their own ranks.

The position which has been presented is that the views, both of the broadest kind associated with groups seeking to assert themselves in society at large and of the more special kind expressed by groups seeking to implement their policies within particular organisations are commonly ideological. The open expression of particular wants and demands and of the fact that there are opposed wants and demands is inhibited, and is replaced by distorted, and often conceptually elaborate, expressions of the same think. This process, as has been stressed, arises out of the pressures and conflicts of social life and is largely an unconscious one, affecting members of groups which profit from an ideology as much as those who are diverted and pacified by it. For this reason it is a misunderstanding of the nature of ideologies to dismiss them as unimportant epiphenomena of "real historical forces." They do not have the role their believers take them to have, but they are quite real and powerful historical factors. (When an Oxford professor, J. Plamenatz insists that, "common notions of justice, honour and dignity" will not disappear from politics, we can agree with him, but not for the reason he would give.) Put differently, ideologies are the currency with which socio-political transactions are, in fact, conducted, and as such they influence and limit the transactions which occur. While one consequence of this is that groups in a position to exercise power are limited or hampered by their own ideology, it also follows that groups which resist developing an appropriate ideology can expect to have little impact on society or on particular organisations, To take what might be imagined to be a negative instance, the growth of scientific inquiry has been accompanied by an alteration but not a dimunation of ideology in society, and the inquirers themselves rarely escape ideology when their subject matter is social or when they come to express their own social demands. All the more utopian, then, are those realistic enough to see through many current ideologies and yet, like some modern anarchists, believe that they have a programme for the future which can not only be achieved but can be achieved in a rational non-ideological way. They fail to realise that a social revolution of the kind they envisage always has required, and still requires, a movement which disseminates and is captured by a new ideology; or put the other way, they fail to realise that it one thing to see through ideologies, to know their symptoms and origins and to struggle against them, but quite another thing to cure society of them.


    1. A brief but illumination account is found in Max Eastman's "Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution," repeated in his "Marxism: Is it a Science?" A more recent, more detailed account is given in H.B., Action's "The Illusions of the Epoch," which is scholarly but shows less insight into social realities.
    2. "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," Preface.
    3. Marx and Engels, "The German Ideology"
    4. "L. Feuerbach," Part IV
    5. "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," Preface, my emphasis
    6. Marx and Engels, "The Holy Family."
    7. "The 18th Brumiere of Louis Bonaparte."
    8. Early article
    9. "Theses on Feuerbach"
    10. Letter to Mehring, July, 1893
From Collective Action Notes. Originally from "The Libertarian" (Australia, Libertarian Society of Sydney University) # 2, September 1958