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Ideology and Class Struggle: A Short Introduction

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Typically, ideology is defined as a “body of ideas reflecting a certain individual, group, class or culture.” This being said, the number of ideologies is limitless, and their production incessant. However, to develop a scientific theory of ideology, it must be understood by its general role in society, which means a general analysis of ideology as it exists within its corresponding social and material context must be accomplished. Rather than a “body of ideas,” philosopher Louis Althusser defined ideology by noting that it “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” For example, liberalism claims to be the embodiment of liberty, justice, and equality. However, in practice, it gives rise it its own antitheses. The reverence liberalism grants to the institution of private property allows for global exploitation, socio-economic stratification, etc. In a bigger context, the role of ideology is the part it plays in the reproduction of day-to-day life i.e, it provides the “glue” which binds the individual to dominate social practices.

 The History of Ideology

 'Ideology’ was coined in 1796 by the French philosopher Destutt De Tracy, who assigned ideology as the object of a general “science of ideas.” However, the dominant and modern understanding of the word is derived from the term’s usage by Napoleon Bonaparte to castigate the “ideologues,” a group which included Tracy, who were his political opponents. (Hart) Eventually, ideology began to transform from a pejorative into a word which was neutrally employed in the analysis of political sciences and philosophy. 

Decades after Tracy and Napoleon’s usage of ideology, political philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels employed the term in a very different manner. At that time, viewing it in a social context, Marx and Engels would define ideology as a system of representations which have a tendency to reflect the prevailing socio-economic order. However, subsequent philosophers would come to the conclusion that this definition was not sufficient. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels conceive ideology as the residue left from day-to-day practices where all reality is external to ideology i.e., “[i]deology is thus thought as an imaginary construction whose status is exactly like the theoretical status of the dream among writers before Freud.” (Althusser) However, Althusser audaciously claims that although Marx’s formulation is a theory of ideology, it does not offer us an authentic Marxist theory of ideology. It ignores the material existence of ideology, a fundamental flaw which seems to contradict Marx’s materialism. Althusser puts forward a definition which conceives of ideology as being “the imaginary relation of [man] to the real relations in which they live.” (Althusser) This change, which may seem simple, has far reaching implications in the social sciences and philosophy.

 The Birth of Ideologies

 Before we can ask how “the imaginary relation of [man] to the real relations in which they live,” translates into this aforementioned ‘social glue,’ we must ask, how do ideologies come about? First, it is important to differentiate between ideologand ideologies. Ideologis the general concept we are exploring, whereas ideologies are various, specific expressions of ideology. 

In the materialist tradition, Marx and Engels maintained that any individual ideology (i.e, a specific expression of ideology) was born out of the reflection of objective material conditions on man’s consciousness and that, as Marx said, “[t]he ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.” By studying history and abstracting these relationships and their individual components, it can be seen how material and ideological development is realized, and how they relate. At a certain stage of development in various epochs, the way in which people relate to the production of their own existence “come[s] into conflict with the existing relations of production.” (Marx) For example, we can look at history’s most recent socio-economic development. During feudalism’s slow transition to capitalism, the dominating ideas of the time — such as Monarchism — became barriers to the further development of the capitalist productive forces. New socio-political relations had to be actualized before the productive forces could make any qualitative leap.  A philosophy which reflected the emerging (capitalist) mode of production would need to take root (classical liberalism). The anti-Monarchic revolutions which became abundant in the 18th and 19th centuries gave capitalism the very basis it needed to flourish by establishing a socio-political system which based on liberalism, i.e., the natural rights of life, liberty, and most importantly private property. Thus, it can be seen how liberalism — a specific expression of ideology — was born out of the material conditions which necessitated its existence. 

 The Hegemony and Function of Ideology

 Now to further define and understand ideology, philosopher Louis Althusser introduced the concept of “ideological state apparatuses,” or “ISA’s” which function to maintain ideological hegemony. These apparatuses are seen as “a certain number of realities, which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions.” (Althusser) Such institutions can be separated into distinct apparatuses, with varying magnitudes of autonomy and influence: the religious ISA (church systems), the educational ISA (public and private school systems), the family ISA, the political ISA (political parties, political system), the legal ISA, etc. These institutions all function in a similar manner: by ideology. This means that what unites them, even in their diversity, is that they all function subordinated to what is fundamentally the same ideology.

In the United States, for example, legal, political, familial, and educational systems all function by their accordance with the dominate system of ideology, namely capitalist democratic-republicanism. That isn’t to say somewhere, in small amounts, some “members” of such institutions do not exist that challenge the dominate ideology, but that their existence is meaningless insofar as they exist in minuscule numbers. Ideology presents itself everywhere, from popular culture to politics. Michel Foucault went so far as to define ideology as a discourse: “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” Thus ideology, or in this case, “discourse” functions to unconsciously “control” society to enable its functioning. Never has a society existed which did not establish ideological hegemony — especially in popular institutions — for “no class can hold power over a long period of time without at the same time exercising its hegemony over State Ideological Apparatuses.” (Althusser) Just as in economics, the ultimate condition of social existence is the reproduction of the conditions of production. Ideology functions as a means to ensure social cohesion: to bind the individual to day-to-day practices, and to establish an acceptable discourse which dominates our culture.

 Ideology and the Class Struggle

 Studying the role of ideology in society is of vast importance, particularly for its implications in the class struggle. In order to grasp an accurate picture of the world around us it is necessary to apply these concepts to our analysis of society. First and foremost, we must look at the material circumstances which condition our consciousness. This includes the material existence of ideology embedded within the dominate social institutions. 

The intellectuals and orators of bourgeois ideology speak of the “end of ideology” (ideology in the sense of bodies of ideas). For they see liberal-capitalism as the be all end all, the most progressive and developed organization of society. However, it can be seen how bourgeois ideology ultimately fails by professing its inherent permanence. The philosophical liberal foundation of bourgeois ideology sees individuals as abstract beings outside of concrete socio-economic relations by assigning individuals with ‘natural rights,’ chiefly the right of property. However, these ‘rights’ cannot be natural per se because they are merely the naturalized conditioned modes of socio-economic relations (i.e., the reflected material conditions). The significance of this conclusion is simply that capitalism is only a stage of development within the arena of history; the socio-economic conditions which ultimately produced bourgeois philosophy differed in the past, and can change again. Only by understanding the laws which set in to motion the development of society can we theorize the proper way in which emancipation can occur. This is what Marx expressed his famous Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

In conclusion: [1] the materialist conception of history allows us to understand how consciousness is conditioned by modes of production [2] therefore the dominant ideas of any epoch are merely an expression of the dominant material relations [3] liberal (idealist) philosophy renders actual political/economic progress infeasible [4] with the development of society emerges the seeds of a new social order, and [5] our recognition of these concepts allows us to theorize how emancipation can be realized.




Althusser, Louis. Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. New York: Monthly Review Pr, 2001. Print.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: Birth of a Prison. 2nd. New York: Random House, Inc., 1995. Print.


Hart, David M. (2002) Destutt De Tracy: Annotated Bibliography


Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Hong Kong: Forgotten Books, 2012. Print.


Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology . Eastford: Martino Fine Books, 2011. Print.

Jacob Pointon has not set their biography yet


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