In the Communist Manifesto (1848) Karl Marx writes, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” and this is a key aspect of his theory of ideology. For Marx ideology is both a distorted view of reality and a view that serves the interests of the ruling class. Marx’s theory of ideology developed throughout his writings remaining consistent in the notions that ideology involved an inverted view of reality, but an inversion that was ultimately rooted in reality itself. For example, Marx’s critique of religion follows Ludwig Feuerbach’s view that the religious consciousness inverts reality when it claims that God made man, because in reality God and religion are human constructs. However, Marx goes beyond Feuerbach in seeking the root cause of religious consciousness which he locates in a world where people are unhappy, unfulfilled and oppressed, and who seek comfort in religion. So the problem is not just false ideas that can be countered by true ones, but a deficient reality that generates false ideas, and therefore the reality must be changed in order to change the false ideas. Marx, with his dialectical perspective, identifies contradictions in reality, in the economic system for example, that are concealed by distorted ideas, and such ideological distortions, which in general serve the interests of the ruling class, cannot be eliminated by mere counter-arguments, but can only be ended by resolving the real contradictions in the world that give rise to them. In his later writings on capitalism Marx discusses how the market gives the appearance of a free and equal system, with workers free to sell their labor and all men and women equal. Bourgeois ideology with its stress on liberty, rights, and property reflects this distorted appearance. Beneath the surface of the exchange system though lies the truth of unfreedom and inequality, where surplus value is generated through the labor power of workers who are exploited by their capitalist employers and denied access to the means of production. For Marx ideology is a term employed critically and negatively.
   Later Marxists developed a more neutral view of ideology as a term for the totality of forms of social consciousness. In other words, ideology came to be seen by such Marxists as Georgii Plekhanov as part of the superstructure, ideas reflecting material conditions in the economic base. Eduard Bernstein took the step of describing Marxism itself as an ideology without in any way intending this to be a critical or negative comment, and Vladimir Ilich Lenin developed the view of ideology as meaning the political consciousness of classes, so that there is a proletarian ideology standing in opposition to bourgeois ideology. Georgii Lukács followed Lenin’s line and described Marxism as “the ideological expression of the proletariat,” also viewing ideology as a key arena of struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Antonio Gramsci developed the theory of ideology further linking it to his notion of hegemony and the overall struggle for domination between classes. For Gramsci the rule of the dominant class is achieved as much by ideology as by force, and ideology is an entire conception of the world that permeates all aspects of life. This view affords a much more significant role to intellectuals and to ideological institutions such as churches and schools. Gramsci specifically identified four levels of ideology: philosophy; religion; common sense; and folklore. Louis Althusser distinguished between a theory of ideology in general which concerns ideology as a cohesive force in society, and a theory of particular ideologies which concerns ideology as a means of achieving domination for a single class. Ideology he views as a relatively autonomous level of society, a part of the superstructure, reflecting social and economic factors and interests. He contrasts ideology with science, the latter being an autonomous practice that solely pursues truth and knowledge, and Marxism he divides into Marx’s earlier ideological writings and later scientific writings, with what he terms an “epistemological break” separating the two.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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