[Marxism] IDEOLOGY

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Fri Mar 17 11:04:56 MST 2006



by Raymond Williams

Ideology first appeared in English in 1796, as a direct translation of the
new French word ideologie which had been proposed in that year by the
rationalist philosopher Destutt de Tracy. Taylor (1796): 'Tracy read a paper
and proposed to call the philosophy of mind, ideology'. Taylor (1797): '.
ideology, or the science of ideas, in order to distinguish it from the
ancient metaphysics'. In this scientific sense, ideology was used in
epistemology and linguistic theory until lC19.

A different sense, initiating the main modern meaning, was popularized by
Napoleon Bonaparte. In an attack on the proponents of democracy - 'who
misled the people by elevating them to a sovereignty which they were
incapable of exercising' - he attacked the principles of the Enlightenment
as 'ideology'. 

	It is to the doctrine of the ideologues - to this diffuse
metaphysics, which in a contrived manner seeks to find the primary causes
and on this foundation would erect the legislation of peoples, instead of
adapting the laws to a knowledge of the human heart and of the lessons of
history - to which one must attribute all the misfortunes which have
befallen our beautiful France.

This use reverberated throughout C19. It is still very common in
conservative criticism of any social policy which is in part or in whole
derived from social theory in a conscious way. It is especially used of
democratic or socialist policies, and indeed, following Napoleon's use,
ideologist was often in C19 generally equivalent to revolutionary. But
ideology and ideologist and ideological also acquired, by a process of
broadening from Napoleon's attack, a sense of abstract, impractical or
fanatical theory. It is interesting in view of the later history of the word
to read Scott (Napoleon, vi, 251): 'ideology, by which nickname the French
ruler used to distinguish every species of theory, which, resting in no
respect upon the basis of self-interest, could, he thought, prevail with
none save hot-brained boys and crazed enthusiasts' (1827). Carlyle, aware of
this use, tried to counter it: 'does the British reader ... call this
unpleasant doctrine of ours ideology?' (Chartism, vi, 148; 1839).

There is then some direct continuity between the pejorative sense of
ideology, as it had been used in eCl9 by conservative thinkers, and the
pejorative sense popularized by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology
(1845-7) and subsequently. Scott had distinguished ideology as theory
'resting in no respect upon the basis of self-interest', though Napoleon's
alternative had actually been the (suitably vague) 'knowledge of the human
heart and of the lessons of history'. Marx and Engels, in their critique of
the thought of their radical German contemporaries, concentrated on its
abstraction from the real processes of history. Ideas, as they said
specifically of the ruling ideas of an epoch, 'are nothing more than the
ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant
material relationships grasped as ideas'. Failure to realize this produced
ideology: an upside-down version of reality. 

	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. (German Ideology, 47)

Or as Engels put it later: 

	Every ideology ... once it has arisen develops in connection with
the given concept-material, and develops this material further; otherwise it
would cease to be ideology, that is, occupation with thoughts as with
independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own
laws. That the material life-conditions of the persons inside whose heads
this thought process goes on in the last resort determine the course of this
process remains of necessity unknown to these persons, for otherwise there
would be an end to all ideology. (Feuerbach, 65-6)

Or again: 

	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 his predecessors'. (Letter to Mehring,

Ideology is then abstract and false thought, in a sense directly related to
the original conservative use but with the alternative - knowledge of real
material conditions and relationships - differently stated. Marx and Engels
then used this idea critically. The 'thinkers' of a ruling class were 'its
active conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of
the class about itself their chief source of livelihood' (German Ideology,
65). Or again: 'the official representatives of French democracy were
steeped in republican ideology to such an extent that it was only some weeks
later that they began to have an inkling of the significance of the June
fighting' (Class Struggles in France, 1850). This sense of ideology as
illusion, false consciousness, unreality, upside-down reality, is
predominant in their work. Engels believed that the 'higher ideologies' -
philosophy and religion - were more removed from material interests than the
direct ideologies of politics and law, but the connection, though
complicated, was still decisive (Feuerbach, 277). They were 'realms of
ideology which soar still higher in the air . . . various false conceptions
of nature, of man's own being, of spirits, magic forces, etc. ... (Letter to
Schmidt, 1890). This sense has persisted.

Yet there is another, apparently more neutral sense of ideology in some
parts of Marx's writing, notable in the well-known passage in the
Contribution to the Critique of Political Philosophy (1859): 

	The distinction should always be made between the material
transformation of the economic conditions of production ... and the legal,
political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic - in short, ideological -
forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.* 

This is clearly related to part of the earlier sense: the ideological forms
are expressions of (changes in) economic conditions of production. But they
are seen here as the forms in which men become conscious of the conflict
arising from conditions and changes of condition in economic production.
This sense is very difficult to reconcile with the sense of ideology as mere

In fact, in the last century, this sense of ideology as the set of ideas
which arise from a given set of material interests or, more broadly, from a
definite class or group, has been at least as widely used as the sense of
ideology as illusion. Moreover, each sense has been used, at times very
confusingly, within the Marxist tradition. There is clearly no sense of
illusion or false consciousness in a passage such as this from Lenin: 

	Socialism, insofar as it is the ideology of struggle of the
proletarian class, undergoes the general conditions of birth, development
and consolidation of an ideology, that is to say it is founded on all the
material of human knowledge, it presupposes a high level of science, demands
scientific work, etc. . In the class struggle of the proletariat which
develops spontaneously, as an elemental force, on the basis of capitalist
relations, socialism is introduced by the ideologists. (Letter to the
Federation of the North)

Thus there is now 'proletarian ideology' or 'bourgeois ideology', and so on,
and ideology in each case is the system of ideas appropriate to that class.
One ideology can be claimed as correct and progressive as against another
ideology. It is of course possible to add that the other ideology,
representing the class enemy, is, while a true expression of their
interests, false to any general human interest, and something of the earlier
sense of illusion or false consciousness can then be loosely associated with
what is primarily a description of the class character of certain ideas. But
this relatively neutral sense of ideology, which usually needs to be
qualified by an adjective describing the class or social group which it
represents or serves, has in fact become common in many kinds of argument.
At the same time, within Marxism but also elsewhere, there has been a
standard distinction between ideology and SCIENCE (q.v.), in order to retain
the sense of illusory or merely abstract thought. This develops the
distinction suggested by Engels, in which ideology would end when men
realized their real life-conditions and therefore their real motives, after
which their consciousness would become genuinely scientific because they
would then be in contact with reality (cf. Suvin). This attempted
distinction between Marxism as science and other social thought as ideology
has of course been controversial, not least among Marxists. In a very much
broader area of the 'social sciences', comparable distinctions between
ideology (speculative systems) and science (demonstrated facts) are

Meanwhile, in popular argument, ideology is still mainly used in the sense
given by Napoleon. Sensible people rely on EXPERIENCE (q.v.), or have a
philosophy; silly people rely on ideology. In this sense ideology, now as in
Napoleon, is mainly a term of abuse. 


*Marx's German reads: ... kurz, ideologischen Formen, worin sich die
Menschen diesen Konflikts bewusst werden . 


SOURCE: Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.
Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Pp. 153-157.

Ideology Study Guide


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