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 epistemology.

            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 argues:

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.