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Revisiting Marx’s approach to ideology

by Filipe Duarte on July 31, 2017
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Our lives are shaped by manifestations of a working and applied ideology, and they embody a preference for certain explanations. This leads us to think about ideology. The idea of ideology involves the claim that people’s ideas, beliefs, attitudes and values cannot be taken for granted, but they may contend a coherent explanation. Thus, in order to interpret those explanations, one requires an understanding of ideology.

As outlined in an article of mine on “reshaping political ideology in social work”, the common view of ideologies is that they are systems of belief that guide our choices and behaviours, and indeed justify our thoughts, actions and theories. Those structures, systems of power and advantage play a central role in maintaining the development of points of view. Ideology can also be used to manipulate, distort or generate illusionary thought or feelings or actions. Thus, as Terry Eagleton elucidated, ideology has a whole range of useful meanings, and not all formulations are compatible with one another.

Marx’s approach to ideology

In contrast, Marx and Engels in The German Ideology saw ideology as a problematic or faulty method for generating accounts of the world. For them, and for a generation of Marxists that followed, ideology was a pejorative, rather than an inevitable or necessary element of social thought. Thus, ideology was most often associated with idealism: that is, with the circulation of ideas, of thought, of concepts, rather than with the lives and activities of actual people. Ideology came to be characterised as a manifestation of a ruling class, as hegemonic, and as oppressive.

Dorothy Smith, drawing from Marx and Engels in The Conceptual Practices of Power, focused on ideological practices. The first step in ideological practices follows from entering into any social space or social interaction to lift out certain details or data from that space. Just why this or that is selected as noteworthy or significant may be explicit, hence driven by the theory, or might be implicit or elided. Yet, once the details from a social occasion are lifted up and out of the interactive context of their production they are reorganised, not according to the logic, intentionality, and in vivo orientations of actors, but according to the analytic projects of the researcher. As reconfigured, the various types of data are joined through “mystical” connections. Finally, a generalised and abstract theoretical formulation is generated which, post facto, is applied to explain that which was observed.

Of course, if ideology is pervasive and unavoidable, and hence if ideology is used in the sense developed by Karl Mannheim in Ideology and Utopia, then it is impossible not to be ideological, or to have one’s work be ideological. Yet, if ideology is approached via Marx and Engels as problematic, or as arising from idealism, or a turning away from a reflexive, historical, dialectical materialism then it is postulated that there is a possibility of working non-ideologically.

It is in this second negative view of ideology that it is important to recognise the world through an ideological lens. Why? Because ideology relates to power and the distribution of power in society. As Eagleton observed, “ideology has to do with legitimating the power of a dominant social group or class”. A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalising and universalising such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unspoken but systematic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself.

Marx’s understanding of ideology relates to the procedures that mask and suppress the grounding of social science. According to Smith, Marx’s method proposes “ideological definitive procedures or methods of thinking and reasoning about social relations and processes.” Thus, ideology defines a kind of practice in thinking about society. To think ideologically is to think in a distinctive and desirable way.

Another influential account of ideology, based on Marx’s ideas, was offered by Mannheim. He argued that at the heart of any ideology exist certain utopian ideas that inform how society should be organised.

Therefore, Marx’s analysis of ideology captured precisely the conception of ideology based on the nature of knowledge. For him, knowledge is relative to the time, place and thinker or to all three.

My point is that it is impossible to think non-ideologically or in a “value-free” way. If ideology is a method, as Smith argues (and I think so too do Marx and Engels), or way of working, and if there is an alternative method might it be possible to work non-ideologically? Therefore, it can be argued that people’s values and principles are always symptoms of ideology.

Filipe Duarte
Filipe Duarte is a PhD candidate in Social Work at Carleton University (Canada), currently at the All-But-Dissertation (ABD) stage. His thesis, entitled The Impact of the Politics of Austerity on Social Citizenship Rights, examines the impacts and outcomes of austerity on social citizenship rights with a focus on Portugal. Filipe is also a researcher and activist within the radical/structural social work tradition.

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