What is ideology? An introduction to the Marxist theory of ideology

Sep 7, 2021

Graphic: Nathan Schmidt for Liberation School.

Editor’s note: A Spanish translation of this article is available here.


Marxist ideology is one of the most potent weapons the working and oppressed classes have, a weapon that our class can and has used to not only win reforms but to build revolutionary societies where the people, and not profits, are in control. As the PSL identified at our 3rd Party Congress in 2016, one of our primary tasks is to mend the “break in ideological continuity” that emerged after the overthrow of the Soviet Union by reestablishing “the theory of revolutionary Marxism and the entire vision of workers’ power” as a dominant guiding pole in people’s struggles [1].

To correct for the ideological break, it’s helpful to have a concrete understanding of ideology and the different forms it takes. Although the word ideology is used frequently, it’s commonly used in a pejorative sense to refer to something that’s not factual, that’s unscientific, or that’s devoid of substance. It’s also used by those hostile to socialism to present a distorted view of Marxism. What exactly is ideology? What is the difference between bourgeois and Marxist ideology? What significance does this have for organizing today?

To address these questions and help repair the break in the ideological continuity of revolutionary socialism in U.S. social movements, this article outlines Marx’s understanding of ideology. It traces his historical-materialist approach to investigating the relationship between ideas, material reality, and modes of production through several of his works. This allows us to take in the theory’s nuances about life and consciousness, as well as to draw out examples that are still relevant and applicable today. In particular, we focus on the theory of commodity fetishism and the function of the wage in producing the bourgeois ideological conception of the atomized individual.

Proposing a move from “true/false” to “correct/incorrect,” the end of the article returns to the importance of popularizing and promoting Marxist ideology to understand and transform the world today, as revolutionaries have done throughout the socialist struggle to break the chains of exploitation and oppression.

False consciousness?

One of the widely used definitions of ideology sees it as a form of “false consciousness.” Here, ideology carries inherently negative connotations. Although Marx never used this term, Engels did in a July 1893 letter to Franz Mehring, a German communist. Yet it’s important for us to understand exactly what he meant by this. Addressing Mehring’s latest book, On Historical Materialism, Engels writes [2]:

“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 [mit einem falschen Bewußtsein, also translated as “false consciousness”]. 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” [3].

The process of developing ideology in this sense is one in which the thinker is fully conscious while simultaneously being unconscious of the forces actually driving their thought. These forces are external to thought itself and form the real basis of the material existence of the thinker. “False consciousness” thereby refers to the dialectic by which consciousness is conditioned by the material world while also under the illusion that it is not conditioned as such. In other words, it is the idealist assumption that the origin of one’s thoughts is purely conceptual. As Engels explains, the thinker ensnared within ideology of this sort,

“works solely with conceptual material which he automatically assumes to have been engendered by thought without inquiring whether it might not have some more remote origin unconnected therewith; indeed, he takes this for granted since, to him, all action is induced by thought, and therefore appears in the final analysis, to be motivated, by thought” [4].

The material relationship between classes is not based on a rational arrangement for all parties involved or an intellectual agreement between the ruling class and the working masses [5]. It is a concrete relationship of exploitation that needs to be imposed and maintained, both physically and intellectually.

Georg Lukács developed this point in important ways. Reflecting on Engels’ words to Mehring, he notes that Engels is emphasizing that “the dialectical method does not permit us simply to proclaim the ‘falseness’ of this consciousness and to persist in an inflexible confrontation of true and false” [6]. Put differently, another essential aspect of ideology as false consciousness is that it actually contains an important kernel of truth. Although it is false in the sense that individual subjects do not apprehend the material forces driving their ideas, it is “true” in the precise sense that—for historical materialists—it reveals something real about the operative forces behind ideology.

This dialectical understanding of false consciousness—which is thus never simply “false” but contains elements of truth—means that it does not simply amount to a set of haphazard ideas held by individuals that happen to be incorrect. On the contrary, false consciousness is a determined condition that is rooted in a particular mode of production. It is therefore anchored in a specific set of class interests within the overall organization of social production. Far from simply pointing out false ideas of individuals, Marxist practice requires a materialist analysis of class society and the ways in which it necessarily produces very specific sets of ideas and ways of thinking. This is what Marxist ideology reveals through the practice and theory of class struggle.

One example of the distinction between false consciousness and Marxist ideology is in the third volume of Capital, where Marx explains why the capitalist might not understand the source of their profits because they remain at the superficial level of the legal contract. They pay a certain sum of money to the worker for their labor, the landlord for their factory, the banker for their loan, their suppliers for their raw materials and means of production, and after the commodities produced by workers are sold, the capitalist ends up with more money than they had at the start of the process. The banker lends out money only to have more money returned to them. The entire cycle looks like money breeds more money.

For the capitalist, “capital appears as a relationship to itself” and that how surplus-value is created “is now mystified, and appears to derive from hidden qualities that are inherent in capital itself” [7]. As workers, on the other hand, we not only see but experience and suffer the expansion of value and the source of profit as we literally expend our energy and life for the production of surplus value. However, this doesn’t happen organically and requires theoretical reflection and generalization, which can lead to Marxist ideology.

Ideology, consciousness, and historical materialism

Various trends and Marxist revolutionaries use different definitions and words for Marxist theory, with some preferring “science” to “ideology.” Lenin, in his foundational text on communist organization, wrote that,

the only choice is: either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course” and “hence, to belittle socialist ideology in any way, to deviate from it in the slightest degree means strengthening bourgeois ideology” [8].

All ideology has a class basis, and Marxist ideology “can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production” [9]. When we use ideology, we refer to a political framework and worldview of our class in order to understand and overthrow exploitation and oppression.

The origins of Marxist ideology can be found in The German Ideology, a series of manuscripts written between 1845-1846, where Marx and Engels formulated their break with the “Young Hegelians” with whom they were previously affiliated. As Engels later wrote, the manuscripts, which weren’t published until 1932, were written “to clear our own minds” of the idealism they previously endorsed [10]. They represent a major breakthrough in Marxist theory. Most significantly, they construct the groundwork for the method of historical materialism.

One major line of attack is that the Young Hegelians considered “conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness, to which they attribute[d] an independent existence, as the real chains of men” [11]. In other words, Hegelians believed that ideas prevent historical progress and that new ideas drive historical change. Yet they never questioned or examined the relationship between their own ideas and the material conditions of their lives in Germany because they assumed that the life of the mind is independent from the actual world. This is perfectly in line with Engels’ critique of “false consciousness” that we discussed above because it is a form of consciousness that ignores its own concrete conditions of existence.

Moreover, the Young Hegelians presumed that the struggle against incorrect ideas was only to be fought out on the terrain of ideas themselves, meaning that something like “true consciousness” was the antidote to “false consciousness.” Marx and Engels polemicized against this belief and the Young Hegelians’ assumption that we just need to change “present consciousness to human, critical… consciousness” [12]. Such an approach reduces critique to fighting words with other words rather than “combating the real existing world” [13]. It isn’t “criticism but revolution,” Marx and Engels insist, “[that] is the driving force of history” [14].

This elucidation of the Young Hegelians’ false consciousness—meaning their misrecognition of the material forces driving history and their own worldviews—is an opportunity to articulate the fundamentals of the historical materialist method. “The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination” [15].

The materialist method begins with how people “produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation” [16]. This varies according to different modes of production. The “mode of production,” they write, “must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals” but “a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part” [17]. In other words, the mode of production encompasses the productive forces and the relations of production, which are not confined to a “purely economic” realm but encompass all of society.

Determination, consciousness, and the class struggle

Marx and Engels state that “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 life” [18]. The first step, then, is directly opposed to Hegel and his followers who begin with ideas and proceed to the world. Marx and Engels, by contrast, explain that “[we] do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive… we set out from 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” [19]. This is the paragraph in which the famous line appears: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

What do Marx and Engels mean when they declare that life determines consciousness? The terminology of “determination” figures frequently in Marxist analysis, and it’s an object of superficial criticism for those who want to discredit it. Some say it deprives people of agency because it’s deterministic or reductionist. Yet without understanding what determines what and why, no theory has any explanatory or transformative value whatsoever. “The root sense of ‘determine,’” as Raymond Williams points out, “is ‘setting bounds’ or ‘setting limits’” [20]. It doesn’t mean that something mechanistically and unilaterally causes something else to happen. Determined limits also evolve and change based on the class struggle, which can push it in new directions and erect new limits.

For example, individual consumers have a range of choices under capitalism, but our ability to choose is determined by multiple factors, like our income. Capitalism determines what we can and can’t buy, which in turn sets limits on the quality of our lives. Relative to ideology, material conditions, the productive forces, the economic and social reality of our world pushes our thoughts in certain directions rather than others. It makes it easier to think and imagine in certain ways and much harder to do so in other ways. Fighting for concrete reforms is crucial to the socialist movement because if we win, we improve our material conditions and show that we have the power to determine new limits and exert our own pressures. As a result, it’s easier to imagine that we can ultimately determine our existence collectively and establish a socialist society.

If it was only a matter of changing material conditions, why would Marx and Engels develop a theory and fight tooth-and-nail against other competing theories in the workers’ movement? Ideas and material life are in a dialectical relationship in that the mode of production sets limits and exerts pressures on our ideas, beliefs, and even feelings, tending to direct them in certain ways. Yet working and oppressed people can, when we’re organized, push back against those limits and pressures.

Speaking of ideology in general, Marx and Engels write that it makes people “and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura,” which itself “arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process” [21]. This metaphor is apt, as Jennifer Ponce De León and Gabriel Rockhill note, because “a camera obscura does not simply misrepresent the world outside” but rather “perfectly captures key features of it, and this is part of its pernicious power of sense-making” [22]. Ideology frames the world in a particular way within a given social reality.

Representations are always partial, which doesn’t mean that all representations or ideologies are equal. Representations and ideologies are, rather, always partisan in that they guide our understanding of the world, allowing us to see certain things and not others. The difference between bourgeois and Marxist ideology turns on what and how much of the world we can see and understand. Bourgeois ideology remains at the level of appearances, while Marxist ideology expands our understanding to show us what makes things appear like they do, how they change over time, and how we can change these underlying structures. Marxist ideology could be called “scientific” in that it poses and answers the fundamental and structural questions that bourgeois ideology can’t.

Bourgeois vs. Marxist ideology

“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” [23].

These ruling-class ideas are not independent of social production but are “the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” The class that dominates society “rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age” [24]. Bourgeois ideology takes many forms, but they’re united by their basis in the capitalist world system as a natural system and, therefore, as the most superior one. The ideology of the ruling class is not only reflective of its interests but also, and as a result of that reflection, is severed from its material basis, so capitalism appears as independent and eternal. Another key point is that bourgeois ideology doesn’t come from outside the system, but—as we hinted with the earlier example of the capitalist—emanates from within the very inner logics and workings of the capitalist system.

A few examples might help illustrate both how bourgeois ideology is built into the structure of capitalism and how Marxist ideology shows us what the capitalist can’t see.

The first example is what Marx refers to as the “fetishism of the commodity.”  In Capital, Marx notes that the “commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood” [25]. We walk into the grocery store and see before us a host of commodities. We are not confused. Each has a price, a weight, a size, a package, a list of ingredients, a brand, a category, and so on. We think we have all of the information that we need about the products. Upon further inquiry, however, Marx finds that the commodity “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” [26]. What is it that is so queer and metaphysical about a loaf of Wonder Bread? What the bread contains is human labor-power; commodities are literally the congealed form of a particular socially-necessary form of labor. Workers produce commodities, yet under commodity fetishism:

“the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour” [27].

Stated differently, commodity fetishism is the way in which relations between people take on the appearance of relations between things. At the grocery store we think we’re exchanging our money for a commodity, but in reality, we’re interacting with the relations that enable commodity production under capitalism—between workers and bosses, unions and CEOs, politicians negotiating trade deals, immigration and customs officials, and so on. There is no label on Wonder Bread stating that it was made by exploited labor, that the profits go to the ruling class, that its process of production relied on ecologically destructive bio-industries, that the technologies that produced it were developed through class struggle—to name just a few social relations that produce the particular commodity.

It’s the same with the money–or our wage–that we exchange for the bread. As Marxists, we know that there’s a difference between the value we’re paid and the value we produce for the capitalist [28]. For whatever period of time we work, part of the time goes to reproducing our wage and part of it goes as surplus to the owner. Yet when we get a paycheck at the end of a shift, a gig, a week, or month, it looks like we’ve been paid for the entirety of our time.

We work for an hour, we get paid an hour. Where’s the exploitation in that? Bourgeois ideology is content to look at the contract between the worker and capitalist and declare an equality between the two. Marxist ideology reveals that the worker and capitalist are anything but equals, and that in reality the wages we’re paid come from our work and go to the capitalist, who then pays it back to us after siphoning off what Marx called surplus value.

This leads to a second example of the limits of bourgeois ideology and the revolutionary potential of Marxist ideology: the wage and the atomized individual. Through the form of the wage, bourgeois ideology mystifies exploitation while Marxist ideology explains how the form of the wage reinforces the idea that we’re all equal individuals being paid for the entirety of our working day [29].

Bourgeois ideology holds up the individual as the cornerstone of the world and as a form of the human that’s natural and timeless. Marx later wrote that, “Smith and Ricardo still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets, in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual… appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure” [30]. Humans have for most of history not thought of themselves as individuals, nor have we related to others as individuals. “Production by an isolated individual outside society… is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other” [31]. Why is it that we think of ourselves as individuals or that we think of society as a group of individuals? Marx locates the individual with the rise of “civil society” in the 18th century and as the real basis for German ideology.

As the atomized and independent individual solidifies as the basis of civil society and capitalism, real humans become ever more interdependent as trade, commerce, and divisions of labor expand and intensify. One of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism is that it necessarily creates a collective and international working class, the class that can overthrow it. The ideology of the individual attempts to smooth this over while also dividing the global working class and pitting workers against one another as atomized competitors.

The bourgeois ideology of the individual works on different scales, from the mass media and public schooling to everyday interactions. We constantly have to prove that we’re “unique” individuals, such as every time we log into an account, verify our social security number, or answer a special security question.

Whereas bourgeois ideology describes what it sees, Marxist ideology probes beneath the surface to uncover the real mechanisms that create exploitation and oppression so we can act to change them. Marxist ideology is the generalization of the working-class struggle because only through the proletarian movement can we see the real operations of capitalism.

Revolutionary ideas can only come from a revolutionary class in its struggle for power, from the communists (which they define at one point in the The German Ideology as “the follower of a definite revolutionary party”) [32]. The Party is the vehicle through which the working class produces socialist ideology, as the Party removes “all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals” [33]. In the Party, as Lenin wrote, workers produce our class ideology “not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians” [34].

Popularizing and promoting Marxist ideology

One of the goals for any struggle is to build collective unity, to show how we’re not independent and atomized but deeply interdependent on others; how we’re not “Americans” but members of an international working class.

Communism overturns this relation of individuals, denaturalizes the ideas and relations of capitalist society, “and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals” by transforming “existing conditions into conditions of unity.” Communists take existing relations of production as “inorganic conditions” [35]. Marx and Engels can understand and explain why bourgeois ideology is the way it is because historical materialism reveals that our current reality isn’t eternal or preordained, but one that is always changing—and that our class can overthrow.

Rather than what is true or false, however, it’s more helpful for Marxists to concern ourselves with what is correct and what is incorrect. Whereas “truth” denotes an objective or neutral “fact” or “state of affairs,” and has a sense of permanence, what is “correct” is always only correct from a partisan standpoint and from within a certain time and social situation.

An example of the distinction between the true and correct comes from David Backer’s analysis of the struggle over the length of the working day, where Marx stages a dialogue between the worker and Mr. Moneybags [36]. The capitalist, as the buyer of labor-power, is within their rights to extend the working-day as much as they want, as they, like the purchaser of any commodity, are free to use it as they wish under the laws of capitalist exchange. Yet as workers, we’re within our rights to reduce the working-day, as the labor-power purchased is literally our bodies and lives. There is, as Marx says, “therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges” [37]. The worker says “the working-day is eight hours!” as the boss says “the working-day is twelve hours!”

Both statements can be true but only one can be correct, and this will be determined by the class struggle, by which group is able to force their position to establish a new truth and, ultimately, a new mode of production.

We have to fight bourgeois ideology with Marxist ideology, a dynamic ideology that—because it’s rooted in social production and the perspective of the working and oppressed classes—explains the reasons why we’re poor and oppressed and provides a framework for overthrowing the structures that produce these conditions. Marxist ideology not only explains oppression and exploitation but provides weapons for transforming the social order to eliminate both. This transformation isn’t potential but actual: the oppressed have and continue to wield it in order to abolish exploitation and combat all forms of oppression. Bourgeois ideology has brought neither understanding nor progress. Marxist ideology has and continues to generate both.

While “material force must be overthrown by material force,” by developing, popularizing, and applying Marxist ideology to our organizing, we can help make “theory become a material force” [38].


[1] Brian Becker, “Theory and Revolution: Addressing the Break in Ideological Continuity,” Liberation School, 28 September 2016. Available here.
[2] Franz Mehring, On Historical Materialism (London: New Park Books, 1893/1975).
[3] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to Franz Mehring in Berlin,” in Marx & Engels Collected Works (Vol. 50): Letters 1892-1895 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1983/2010), 164.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ideology defined as false consciousness not only rests on the incorrect belief that ideas have an independent existence, but it also assumes that they are the primary terrain of struggle. The struggle against injustice would thus amount to a purely intellectual task of pointing out the incorrect thoughts of one’s adversaries, based on the assumption that the establishment of true ideas would correct things. Truth, in other words, would simply amount to a correct intellectual formulation. If this were the case, then we would simply have to form the best arguments in order to fight and win.
[6] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. R. Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 50.
[7] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 3): The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, trans. D. Fernbach (New York: Penguin Books, 1884/1981), 139.
[8] V.I. Lenin, “What is to be Done?” in Essential Works of Lenin, ed. H.M. Christman (New York: Dover Publications, 1902/1987), 82.
[9] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 1): The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 25-26.
[10] Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1884/1941), 7.
[11] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, with Selections from Parts Two and Three and Supplementary Texts, trans. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 41.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 49.
[15] Ibid., 42.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 47.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 84.
[21] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 47. A camera obscura was a predecessor to the photographic camera. It consists of a dark room with a small hole that lets light in. The result is that an inversion of the outside is projected on the opposite wall.
[22] Jennifer Ponce De León and Gabriel Rockhill, “Towards a Compositional Model of Ideology: Materialism, Aesthetics, and Cultural Revolution,” Philosophy Today 64, no. 1 (2020): 99.
[23] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 64.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 76, emphasis added.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid., 77.
[28] See Derek Ford and Mazda Majidi, “Surplus Value is the Class Struggle: An Introduction,” Liberation School, 30 March 2021. Available here.
[29] One exception is piece-wages, when we’re paid according to each individual service or product we produce. Here, it’s easier to tell the difference between what we’re paid for producing and what the capitalist sells it for. For a personal example, I used to work at a gym as a personal trainer, and I could see what my boss charged my clients and what he paid me for each session. There wasn’t any mystification there.
[30] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1939/1973), 83.
[31] Ibid., 84.
[32] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 60.
[33] Lenin, What is to be Done?, 137.
[34] Ibid., f1.
[35] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology,  86.
[36] David I. Backer, “Toward an Activist Theory of Language,” in Truth in the Public Sphere, ed. J. Hannon (Lanham: Lexington, 2016).
[37] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 255.
[38] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right,’ trans. J. O’Malley and A. Jolin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1927/1977), 137.

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