Ideology as a dictionary definition means “a set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system” or “the body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture”. Michele Barrett, in the chapter “Classical Marxism and Theories of Ideology” from her book The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault, tries to interpret different definitions of ideology in the Marxist literature.
To begin with the founding father of the Marxist literature Karl Marx, the definition of ideology is a highly questionable one. Barrett claims that this is mostly caused by the presence of the direct or indirect definitions of ideology only in Marx’s early works. Marxist definition of ideology is conventionally understood as something like “mystification that serves class interest” (Barrett, pg 4). However, in many of Marx’s writings ideology can be interpreted as something like illusion, distortion that prevents the proletariat to reach class consciousness. Orthodox Marxism which is based on strict economic determinism, ideology is somehow portrayed as illusional reality that creates “false consciousness” (Barrett, pg 5). In other words, material conditions, which determine the mode of production and the opponent classes, are something beyond ideology. In this sense, in the orthodox Marxist tradition ideology is conceptualized as something that is outside of the material reality of the world, something like opium that is used to create false consciousness and prevent class consciousness. However, Barrett asserts that Marx himself never used the term “false consciousness” and unlike the popular view, the creator of the term is Friedrich Engels. Marx himself used the term ideology many times to refer to religion as a “distorted or inadequate view of the world” (Barrett, pg 6). By this way, Marx differentiates truth, ultimate knowledge from ideology. It is also noticeable that Marx generally uses the term together with an adjective like “German ideology” or “bourgeois ideology”.
Unlike Karl Marx, Lenin defined ideology as something representative of the “thought and consciousness of a particular class” (Barrett, pg 8). Georg Lukacs also conceptualized ideology similar with Lenin and asserted that ideology appertains to social classes and should be categorized as reactionary or progressive according to the historical/structural condition of a society. Thus, we can claim that Leninism’s and Lukacs’s approach to the issue of ideology is different from Karl Marx’s. In one passage of “Germany Ideology”, Marx uses this phrase; “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. which is the ruling the material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (Barrett, pg 9). In this sense, Marx’s quotation about ideology can be interpreted as the worldview produced and disseminated by the sovereign classes or social groups. In this sense, Marxist method of argumentation about the ideology can be applied to all social categories; not only socioeconomic classes, but also different ethnic, linguistic, sectarian groups (Barrett, pg 11). However, if we look at Marx’s idea about the substructure (base) and superstructure, we can claim that substructural level is strictly the decisive factor and superior to superstructure where ideology exists. Superstructural ideas have no importance and they should be definitely beaten by the substructure. Differently from Marx, Antonio Gramsci thought that the hegemony in the superstructure is a very important factor that could prevail even over the historical inevitability of the base. This “cultural” interpretation of Marxism by Gramsci gave way to new theories about the important role of civil society organizations and state apparatuses which are active in the superstructure and create “false consciousness”. So, Louis Althusser with his “state’s ideological apparatus” theory, tried to show how the capitalist state reproduces appropriated relations to suppress class consciousness (Barrett, pg 21). Lenin’s definition of ideology on the other hand, focuses on the role of ideologues and vanguard class representatives in the formulation of the ideology particular to that class (Barrett, pg 22). In this Leninist tradition, ideology and class consciousness are used interchangeably. Another important communist thinker, George Lukacs unlike Marx, did not see “class ideology and class consciousness as determined by economic relations as occurs in Marx’s base-and-superstructure metaphor” (Barrett, pg 23). Instead, he followed the Hegelian tradition and claimed that there is a totality between ideology and consciousness. Thus, in Lukacs’ theory similar to Gramsci’s view, cultural and ideological expression of a group is as important as the substructural conditions. The general problem with Marxist tradition is that Marxists accept substructural knowledge as the only scientific knowledge and do not leave a place for ideology except false, distorted views. In this sense, Marxists’ approach to Superstructural knowledge as false and belonging to a class or state seeking power is similar to Michel Foucault’s ideas on discourse.
My own interpretation of ideology is a complex set of thoughts which are coherent and complementary and based on different choices about the nature of regime as well as the owners of the means of production. Although the mode of production and its owner is very important for an ideology, we can say that it is not enough since even in a country where means of production are collectively owned, there can be a king or an oligarchy which decide on everything. So, if the first step of ideology is about the control of the means of production, the second is about the type of the regime or the nature of decision-making process. Looking at today’s world, I think we can claim that there is no need to discuss historical inevitability view of Marxist tradition about the substructure. Although Lenin’s imperialism theory and Gramsci’s ideas about the hegemony seem to complete Marxist argument, it is an observable fact that ideologies which live in superstructure are very important in the changes occurring in the base. A socialist government elected by popular votes by its ideological appeal, might make changes about the nature of the regime and the owners of the means of production by economic nationalization policies. Thus, in a sense in the modern world, substructure and superstructure are both very important and affect each other consistently.
- Barrett, Michele, The Politics of Truth: from Marx to Foucault, 1992, Stanford University Press