Marx Myths and Legends. Joseph McCarney

Ideology and False Consciousness

Source: “Ideology and False Consciousness” was written for “Marx Myths and Legends” by Joseph McCarney in April 2005, and rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

The myth to be discussed here was given its purest expression by John Plamenatz when he asserted that ‘Marx often called ideology “false consciousness”’.[1] Not surprisingly, Plamenatz cites no instances of this usage, as, in truth, Marx never calls ideology ‘false consciousness’. Indeed, he never calls anything ‘false consciousness’, a phrase that does not occur in his work. The standard of Marx scholarship in English has, it must be admitted, greatly improved since Plamenatz’s time. No serious commentator today would propose a relationship in the terms he employs with such assurance. There is, nevertheless, a sense in which the shadow of the false consciousness connection still looms large over the subject. This may be illustrated by the work of two later writers, both of whom recognise that Marx does not himself speak of ‘false consciousness’. Moreover, both have been highly influential and are representative of distinct general tendencies. Jorge Larrain, while eschewing the language of ‘false consciousness’, maintains that Marx identifies ideology with cognitive distortion in the specific sense of the concealment of social contradictions.[2] Terry Eagleton for his part believes that this language will serve to characterise not Marx’s sole conception of ideology but rather one he held among others.[3] In general, it may be suggested, the dominant view in the literature is that Marx should be credited with an understanding of ideology as necessarily involving what is cognitively defective or deficient, in being illusory, deceptive, partial, distorted or at any rate failing in some way to present a veridical picture of the social world. This is the myth which the present discussion seeks to expose.

It should be said by way of preliminary that the association of ideology and cognitive deficiency is now so widespread that it must be assumed to serve a deep need of the age, the need for a concept that collects items in virtue of just that sort of deficiency. No objection will be raised here to the devising of such a concept, or to labelling it ‘ideology’. What will be argued is simply that the ascription of the result to Marx is entirely gratuitous. It has generated what may properly be called a ‘myth’ in one familiar sense of the term, a systematic, internally coherent, imaginative construction that lacks any rational foundations. In matters of exegesis the foundations required are a grounding in the testimony of the relevant texts. The discussion will show that there are no such grounds in the present case. Thus, its aim is merely negative. It will not seek to put forward a positive, and necessarily disputable, interpretation of what Marx means by ‘ideology’ beyond whatever is directly conveyed by the textual evidence that will be cited.[4]

An important aspect of this evidence might be captured, without undue strain, by remarking that Marx never calls ideology anything. We have to deal not just with the kind of reticence that is evident in the case of such concepts as ‘class’ and ‘dialectic’. The difficulty here is still more basic in that Marx never manages even to set the scene for an attempt at conceptual explication since the bare substantive ‘ideology’ hardly figures at all in his work. The noun is almost always accompanied by an epithet such as ‘German’, ‘republican’, ‘political’ or ‘Hegelian’, or by a qualifying phrase, as in ‘the ideology of the bourgeoisie’ or ‘the ideology of the political economist’. More typical in any case is the adjectival usage in which such varied items as ‘forms’, ‘expressions’, ‘phrases’, ’conceptions’, ‘deception’, and ‘distortion’ are said to have an ‘ideological’ character. Even more distinctive is the frequency, amounting to approximately half of all references in the relevant range, of invocations of the ‘ideologists’, the creators and purveyors of the ideological forms. It is in general almost impossible to exaggerate the concrete, conjunctural nature of Marx’s dealings with the ideological, in marked contrast to the abstractions that characterise the later debates.

Thus, one should not expect to find in Marx’s writings a definition, even in a veiled form, of ‘ideology’. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to assume that they will provide some clues as to the nature of the general considerations that control his use of the term. The most important of these is to be found in a text in which, it is generally agreed, he reaches unusual heights of methodological self-consciousness, the ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. There he describes the conflict between material forces and relations of production and goes on to refer to the ‘legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic---in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out’.[5] What is most striking about this reference for present purposes is that so far from associating ideology with cognitive deficiency it associates it rather with cognitive achievement, the ‘becoming conscious’ of the fundamental social conflict. It is an association which, to put it mildly, has not been allowed its due weight in the interpretative literature. Moreover, it is far from unique among the occasions on which Marx offers some guidance as to the main lines of his thinking in this area. Thus, in The Communist Manifesto we learn that, when the class struggle nears its decisive hour, ‘a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole’.[6] The natural reading is surely that these thinkers raise themselves to theoretical comprehension of the historical movement as a whole just in their role as bourgeois ideologists. It also seems natural to suppose that this achievement is what triggers their going over to the other side in the class struggle, a move that presumably brings that role to an end.

In the light of these passages anyone suffering the burden of the prevailing myth might be tempted to conclude that, so far as Marx’s explicit guidance goes, ideology is true consciousness. As a slogan this at least would have the merit of having some basis in the evidence of the texts. By itself, however, it could never amount to more than a misleading, if for a limited purpose salutary, paradox. This is shown, to look no further, by Marx’s all too frequent references to bourgeois ideologists who remain mired in incomprehension of the historical movement as a whole. The correct conclusion is surely that, for Marx, ideology is conceptually compatible with both theoretical comprehension and incomprehension. This is to suggest that ideology is not, for him, an epistemological category of any kind. In more concrete terms he is, it may be said, indifferent to questions of truth status in deciding to designate items as ‘ideological’. To attempt to say more positively what his linguistic practice is determined by would, however, go beyond the limits of the present discussion.

What has been attempted here is a summary account of the direction in which the textual evidence points. It is time to consider more closely the relationship between that evidence and the view that was characterised above as ‘mythical’. For it is not to be supposed that those who propagate, or fall victim to, that myth do so without some reassuring sense that the weight of Marx’s writings is to be reckoned on their side. Even if this support is at best a matter of misleading appearances, the appearances still have to be revealed as such and, so far as space allows, traced to their roots. They are rooted in part, it might be suggested, in a degree of confusion. The confusion in question may itself arise from another feature of Marx’s dealings with the ideological, their overwhelmingly forensic and polemical character. In practice, he tends almost exclusively to be concerned with ideological forms he wishes to criticise and reject, above all with elements of the ideology of the bourgeoisie. This is not quite uniformly the case. Thus, when he writes of the ‘ideological superstructure’ of the ‘proletarians’, one would need to be firmly in the grip of myth to suppose that he intends a criticism.[7] Nevertheless, it may be that the rather consistently hostile tone of his references to the manifestations of ideology has, so to speak, tended to rub off on the concept itself, creating a negative aura around it. If so, this could be only a matter of association and slippage of ideas, not of inference. For it is plainly one thing to characterise particular ideological beliefs as deceptive or distorted and quite another to conclude that ideology as such necessarily partakes of deception and distortion, thereby inflating a contingent circumstance into a conceptual truth. Moreover, so far from supporting such a conclusion, Marx’s quite frequent references to ‘ideological deception’ and ‘ideological distortion’ rather point away from it. For, if it were true, they would have a pleonastic character from which they could be rescued only by supposing that a contrast is intended on the occasions of their use with ‘non-ideological’ deception and distortion. Such a suggestion is, however, so lacking in vitality and resonance in the context of Marx’s work that it has never figured significantly in the literature. It seems that the prevailing myth may be tacitly relying in some degree on vagueness and unclarity with regard to the way the texts bear on it, on unexamined assumptions that turn out on examination to be untenable.

A sense of there being massive support held in reserve, without needing to be called up on any particular occasion, may help in some measure to explain a curious feature of the prevailing view, the fact that so often its advocates seem to experience no need to provide any textual warrant at all. It is any rate the case that it tends to be taken for granted, not made the object of self-conscious scrutiny or seen as a contentious doctrine in need of justification. Yet it would not be quite true to say that no attempt is ever made to adduce evidence on its behalf. At this point, however, the task facing an attempt at the exposure of myth can be drastically simplified. For over and over again, when, so to speak, the pressure is too great to ignore, it is a particular passage that is called into service, the well-known passage with the image of the camera obscura from The German Ideology. It may be reduced to its working parts for present purposes in the form of a single sentence. This is standardly translated as follows:

‘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.’[8]

It may be that the quickest way to show how little support this sentence actually lends the prevailing myth is to draw attention to a matter of translation. The key phrase rendered above as ‘in all ideology’ is in the original ‘in der ganzen Ideologie’.[9] On linguistic grounds, however, it seems more natural to render this combination of definite article, adjective and noun by some such phrase as ‘in the whole ideology’. Such a rendering would make clear that what is in question here is the totality of a particular ideology or that ideology taken ‘as a whole’. If read in this way there is only one possible candidate, the ideology that is the central and, so to speak, eponymous concern of The German Ideology. The reading fits well not just with the overall context of the work but also with the specific thrust of the sentence in which the key phrase appears and with the immediate context of that sentence. For Marx is concerned here not with cognitive defect in general but with a specific, even if large-scale, error. This is the reversal in German idealism of the true order of priority of ideas and material reality. The image of things being ‘upside-down’, ‘standing on their heads’, (auf den Kopf gestellt) is a standard recourse of Marx in characterising his relationship with Hegelianism, and indeed may be taken as an echo of phrases in Hegel’s own work. Marx is far from thinking that the image is serviceable in characterising a wide range of other thinkers such, for instance, as Adam Smith, Ricardo, Bentham and the older French materialists, who, nevertheless, seem uncontentiously to count for him as ideologists. Thus, he does not think of it as capturing a defining feature even of bourgeois ideology, still less of ideology as such.

The sense of a specificity of reference is reinforced by the immediate continuation of the sentence that was quoted above. It assures us that that ‘In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven’. This encourages the suggestion that the chief point of the key sentence may be condensed as follows: ‘Even if the entire German ideology gets things upside-down, this can be explained in materialist terms’. It might be thought that the kind of materialist explanation on offer is fairly crude, and destined to be superseded in the course of Marx’s development, in view of the way it seems to assimilate a complex, socially mediated process to a simple natural one. This does not, however, affect the conclusion to be drawn for present purposes. This is that the camera obscura passage offers a reflection on a feature of a particular ideology, not a conceptual remark about ideology as such. The passage now falls back easily into its place within the consistent texture of the parent work as a whole, no longer seeming to aspire to a meta-level of self-consciousness alien to it. Any appearance of supporting the dominant view has thereby vanished and it is left without a basis in Marx’s work.

The discussion should seek by way of conclusion to trace the false consciousness theme to its source. This is to be found beyond all question in Engels:

‘Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces’.[10]

It would be idle to deny that some conceptual connection is being proposed here between ideology and false consciousness. Yet more needs to be said if its weight is to be assessed correctly. The first point to make is that the proposal, Engels’s only explicit reference to ‘false consciousness’, comes from a letter written some ten years after Marx’s death. Moreover, Engels himself has a sharp sense of the division between private correspondence and work intended for the public realm. A short time later he was to warn another correspondent: ‘Please do not weigh each word in the above too scrupulously… I regret that I have not the time to work out what I am writing to you so exactly as I should be obliged to do for publication’.[11] The conception that was sketched in his private correspondence plays no part, it should be noted, in Engels’s own use of the concept of ideology in works written for publication, even in those of which he was the sole author.[12] Moreover, his warning has in one sense been thoroughly heeded. For very little attention has been paid in the later literature to the particular shade of meaning he wished to attach to the notion of false consciousness. What he seems to have had in mind is a quite specific kind of cognitive failure on the part of an individual, a failure of self-awareness, a lack of insight into the ‘motive forces’ of their own thinking. What is generally in question later under the rubric of false consciousness is, as was suggested above, some form of collective illusion of much more general scope. Plainly this cannot claim even so much of the authority of Engels as would otherwise attach to the contents of the false consciousness letter.

It should be added that this letter is not the only source of guidance on the question of ideology that Engels has to offer after Marx’s direct influence on him was removed. In a text Engels did intend for publication, and indeed over which he might be assumed to have taken particular care, he speaks of ‘the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more less clear expression of struggles of social classes’.[13] This may surely be taken as a version of the formulation of Marx’s ‘Preface’ that is helpfully more explicit in one important respect, its reference to ‘the struggles of social classes’, than the earlier work could afford to be in its own time. An attempt to develop a positive account of what ideology means to Marx and, a lone aberration apart, to Engels also, could hardly do better than to start here. To do so would be a more fitting tribute to Engels’s intellectual legacy than that represented by the pursuit of the spectre of false consciousness he so lightly conjured into existence.



1. J. Plamenatz, Ideology, London, Macmillan, 1970, p.23.

2. J. Larrain, Marxism and Ideology, London, Macmillan, 1983.

3. T. Eagleton, Ideology, London, Verso, 1991.

4. An attempt at such an interpretation is made in J. McCarney, The Real World of Ideology, Brighton, Harvester, 1980.

5. K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1970, p.21.

6. K. Marx and F. Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, The Revolutions of 1848, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973, p. 77.

7. K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1965, p.417.

8. German Ideology, p.37.

9. K. Marx and F. Engels, Die Deutsche Ideologie, Berlin, Dietz Verlag, 1960, p.22.

10. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d., p.541.

11. Selected Correspondence, p. 551.

12. The discussion of the ideological significance of religion in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy is typical and instructive in this regard. See K.Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol.2, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1958, pp. 380- 402.

13. Preface to K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1934, p.9.