You are on page 1of 4


Ideology as a Paradigm
By Holly Graff
There has been much confusion about the relationship of
material conditions and consciousness in Marxism. Some confusion
undoubtedly derives from seemingly contradictory statements made by
Marx. In the _Poverty of Philosophy _Marx writes that human beings are
"both the authors and the actors of their own drama." (TPOP 115) Then in
_Capital _Marx writes that human beings are "governed by laws not only
independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather,
on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence."
(C1 18) Engels attempts to resolve this seeming contradiction by putting
forth a conception of reciprocal causality which stresses that while
material conditions determine ideas, ideas in turn can change material
conditions. The problem with Engels' characterization is that it accepts
the very dichotomy between material conditions and consciousness that
Marx is trying to reject and leaves out the conception of human beings
as praxis which can overcome the need for this separation. That Marx
could be so misunderstood (even by Engels) on this point is probably the
result of Marx's devoting only a few sentences to a direct explanation
of his break with the fundamental starting points of modern Western
In the "Theses on Feuerbach" Marx explicitly rejects the
epistemology of mechanistic materialism which he is so often resumed to
accept. He even argues that a reflectionist theory of consciousness is
ultimately conservative in that it does not suggest how change is
possible. Some holding the reflectionist view (Feuerbach and even the
early Lenin) try to avoid these conservative consequences by in effect
dividing society into two parts and allowing for the existence of a few
who escape determination and thus can go on to do something for the
rest. Marx ridicules this kind of device and reminds us that "the
educator himself needs education." (TGI 659)
In the first thesis on Feuerbach, Marx argues:
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialisms (that of
Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness is
conceived only in the form of the object _of contemplation, _but not as
_sensuous human activity, practice, _not subjectively. Hence in
contradistinction to materialism, the _active _side was developed
abstractly by idealism which, of course, does not know real, sensuous
activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from
the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as
_objective _activity. (TGI 659)
Here Marx is often taken to be trying to map out a middle position
between idealism and materialism. He is certainly taking from idealism a
concern with activity and from materialism an emphasis on an objective
world. However, Marx is adding something found in neither idealism nor
materialism---that is, a claim about the centrality of practice. Marx
views the activity of mind emphasized by idealism as only one aspect of
sensuous human activity practice). Sensuous human activity is activity
which transforms the world and is objective activity. Marx's
understanding that this activity is part of the objective world provides
the connection between subject and object that has long plagued Western
philosophy. Of course, connection is not the correct word, since given
this conception, there is not anything needing to be connected.
The above considerations indicate that Marx uses the word
_consciousness _in a very unusual sense. A quotation from _The German
Ideology _begins to illustrate this usage:
Human beings are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. real,
active human beings, as they are conditioned by a definite development
of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to
these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything
else than conscious existence, and the existence of human beings in
their actual life-process. (TGI 37)
In seeing consciousness as a form of production conditioned by the same
factors that condition all forms of production and in identifying
consciousness with conscious life, Marx is in effect saying that
consciousness as popularly regarded, consciousness as a collection of
ideas most of which are only contingently related to a person's concrete
situation, is a fiction. Further support for this interpretation can be
found in Marx's discussion of what he sarcastically terms his premises.
Marx claims as his premises "real individuals, their
activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those
which they find already existing and those produced by their activity''
In further developing these "premises," Marx elaborates four aspects of
human activity--the production of material life, the production of new
needs, the production of human life, and the production of consciousness
itself. Marx puts the production of consciousness fourth, not because it
occurs after the other three types of production but because he feels
that it cannot be adequately discussed without previously discussing the
other three. So before proceeding, it is appropriate to comment briefly
on what Marx includes in the other three areas.
As usual, Marx begins with an emphasis that human beings
must be alive, must provide themselves with food and shelter. But he
also quickly moves on to make the claim that engaging in these very
activities brings with it the production of new needs. In introducing
the production of new needs, Marx is also introducing the possibility of
accounting for historical change. Moving to the production of human
life, Marx is introducing factors like the reproduction and
socialization of children into his analysis that some people think that
he leaves out completely.
When Marx finally introduces the aspect of consciousness, he
emphasizes that consciousness is a historical development and initially
does not occur in its present form. Consciousness is a social product
closely connected with the development of language. Language arises out
of needs occurring in human intercourse and exists to fulfill these
needs. What human beings talk about and therefore think about is
determined by what their life is. In the beginning consciousness is not
the individual self-consciousness that we take for granted. Marx claims
that in the beginning consciousness is "herd consciousness" or simply
conscious instinct. Only through the growth of increased needs and the
development of the division of labor is individual consciousness
produced. With the division of labor between mental and manual labor, a
particularly significant break occurs. Marx writes that
from this moment onward consciousness can really flatter itself that it
is something other than consciousness of existing practice.., from now
on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world
and to proceed to the formation of 'pure' theory, theology, philosophy,
etc. (TGI 43)
In other words, although theory is never independent of practical human
life, a specific development in the sphere of practical human life
pushes consciousness in the direction of identifying itself as
independent of the material sphere.
In these formulations Marx is trying to make the point that
consciousness is an aspect of human life activity. Thus the well-known
Marxist statement that social being determines consciousness is making
the uncontroversial claim that social being as a whole determines one of
its own aspects. Of course, we often want for methodological reasons to
focus on consciousness and need to remember as we do so that our current
social being easily leads us into the mistake of regarding consciousness
in isolation.
What has not been adequately dealt with is the status of
ideas. It is very easy to identify consciousness with clear and distinct
ideas. But given the Marxist perspective consciousness involves more
than such ideas (and may even exist apart from them as in the case of
"conscious instinct"). Let us consider an example of a white worker who
makes racist remarks while managing to work and even socialize with
black workers fairly harmoniously. In talking about this worker's
consciousness we would clearly be leaving something out if we merely
took into account his or her stated ideas. We discover consciousness by
looking at the totality of social practice of which verbal behavior is
one part. _Focusing on consciousness means that _we must look for a
conceptual paradigm which can account for the totality _of social
practice. _This conceptual paradigm is very rarely going to be stated by
the human being whose consciousness can be understood in terms of it,
but this lack of articulation cannot be used as evidence that a paradigm
does not exist. In fact, the situation is somewhat comparable to a
person's using language without being able to articulate the overall
structure of the language in question. (Marx himself does not always
make this terminological distinction between consciousness and ideas,
but making it avoids many difficulties.)
Given Marx's description of consciousness, we would expect
that particular social conditions would be characterized by a particular
variety of consciousness. Marx does indeed make this claim and refers to
the consciousness that characterizes a particular social situation as
ideology. Insofar as consciousness is severely limited by every mode of
production that has existed, ideology is false (or, more accurately,
incomplete) consciousness. But it is not just any kind of false
consciousness. It is the type of false consciousness which given the
material circumstances within which consciousness is produced makes
special sense. Thus in labeling the thought of the Young Hegelians the
German Ideology, Marx is not just saying that their ideas are wrong but
that their ideas and social practice presuppose a paradigm that makes
sense given the conditions of German society. Of course, this paradigm
makes sense in a larger way only insofar as German society makes sense.
A similar view of ideology is put forward by John Mepham who
Ideology is structured discourse. It is, directly or indirectly, based
on or generated by a set of mutually interdependent categories. The view
that ideology is made up of _ideas _is itself misleading to the extent
that this has been taken in philosophy to suggest that the units of
which ideology is composed, or out of which it is constructed, are
independent of one another, and that they can be traced back to
atomistic ideas which are derived from reality 'one at a tine', or on a
one-to-one basis ... We cannot understand ideological concepts or
ideological propositions as standing in some such one-to-one relation
with non-ideological, non-distorted, factual scientific concepts,
propositions or facts. (Mepham 15)
Mepham's account points towards how a view of ideology as a framework or
paradigm can move us away from the absurd notion that single ideas are
determined in one way by a given social situation or that a simple
conversion from ideological to non-ideological discourse is possible.
In the first part of _The German Ideology, _Marx also makes
his famous statement that "the ideas of the ruling class in every epoch
are the ruling ideas." (TGI 61) (Given the above terminological
distinction, Marx is here referring to paradigms rather than distinct
ideas.) Why is this? As Marx himself notes, the ruling class controls
the means of mental production. This is not insignificant--especially in
contemporary America with the large role played by T.V., advertising,
etc. But control of the means of mental production is not the real basis
of ideological domination. This domination is not the result of clever
capitalist propaganda. (Indeed, most capitalist propaganda is not very
clever.) Rather, we all live under capitalist society and reproduce this
society every day. In discussing our own life activities which take
place within the framework of capitalist society, we discuss within a
given paradigm, and we think within a given paradigm. This means that
the "ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the
dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships
grasped as ideas." (Marx 61) This suggests that within capitalist
society bourgeois ideology is hegemonic, not only within the capitalist
class, but also within the working class and among revolutionaries. Of
course, for the most part, insofar as the paradigm of bourgeois ideology
is articulated, it is articulated in terms of universal rationality.
Marx expresses this when he writes:
For each new class which puts itself in the place of 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, that
is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of
universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid
ones. (TGI 62)
The strength of this paradigm is such that an even partial rejection of
it may appear to constitute irrationality.