A history of confusion part 2: Marxism and Ideology

(Section 3 of Ideology and Practice)

For the purposes of this text we’re going to date the period of classical Marxism from the death of Engels in 1895 to the Nazi Machtergreifung of 1933 and the subsequent liquidation of German social democracy.

Classical Marxism then is what the followers of Marx and Engels made of their works once the two writers were no longer around to agree or disagree with what was being put forward in their name. We also have to remember that the proportion of the written works of the two that were generally available in this period, especially in the crucial formative period from the death of Engels to the outbreak of WW1, was only a small fraction of what has become available since the end of WW2. This has a crucial impact on the idea of what a “Marxist” theory of ideology should be, given that the text of The German Ideology was not fully available until 1932 (a truncated version had been published a few years earlier in 1926) by which time classical Marxism had already staked out a firm idea of what “the” Marxist theory of ideology properly was.

This matters because in fact neither Marx nor Engels used the term much at all after the 1840s and The German Ideology contains more usage of the term than all of their subsequent writings added together. Trying to make any assessment on what Marx and Engels meant by the term is impossible without access to the full text of this manuscript, famously “abandoned … to the gnawing criticism of the mice” as Marx dryly put it [1].

The period of classical Marxism opens with two main texts used as reference points for mass proselytisation — the Commuist Manifesto and Kautsky’s The Class Struggle companion-piece to the Erfurt Programme of 1891. This latter text was the go-to reference for new recruits to German social democracy’s vision of Marxism. It makes no mention of ideology whatsoever, which is in keeping with Marx and Engels’ neglect of the term in their later lives. The Communist Manifesto has a mere two mentions:

“Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now 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.”

“The charges against Communism made from a religious, a philosophical and, generally, from an ideological standpoint, are not deserving of serious examination.”

Both of which can be read as referring to people whose main occupation is concerned with the production of ideas rather than material goods.

In addition, the more intellectual layer of the movement, with funds to acquire book collections, had access to Capital (in which the word “ideology” is used only 5 times in volume I and not at all in vols II & III) and the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (one single mention of “ideological forms”). But in general, at the time of Engels’ death, none of the main writers of German social democracy (Bebel, Bernstein, Kautsky, Liebknecht) are writing about ideology.

Bernstein’s role

Eduard Bernstein
Eduard Bernstein

However, there was one person who actually had access to the manuscript of The German Ideology (henceforth GI, for short) after Engels’ death, which was Eduard Bernstein, whom Engels had appointed literary executor for his and Marx’s manuscripts. In an article on “Karl Marx and Social Reform”, Bernstein writes:

“curiously enough, amongst the left manuscripts of Marx and Engels, I have come across one written not later than 1847, where I found a most remarkable passage pointing out with great vigour the struggle for life in nature. Of course, the term is not used, but the thing is clearly presented, and at the end we meet the following striking sentence: ‘Hobbes could have founded his “bellum omnium contra onmes” with greater right on nature than on men.’”

The “left manuscript … written not later than 1847” is the GI, as the reference makes clear (the annotations made by the marxists.org transcribers points to the specific reference).

In fact, from 1896 onwards, the term “ideology” begins to appear in Bernstein’s articles, always referring primarily to ideas and generally in a neutral way.

Also in 1896 Bernstein begins his series of articles in the SPD journal, Die Neue Zeit, under the heading Problems of Socialism, followed in 1899 by his book Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie [The Requirements of Socialism and the Task of Social Democracy]. Those articles and the book plunged the party into what became known as the revisionism debate. Bernstein uses the term ideology throughout the book in a way that is restricted to the role of ideas, in a neutral way. He opens the first chapter of his revisionist bombshell with a discussion of “that” paragraph from the Preface:

“The method of production of the material things of life settles generally the social, political, and spiritual process of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their mode of existence, but on the contrary their social existence that determines [the nature of] their consciousness. At a certain stage in their development the material productive forces of society come into opposition with the existing conditions of production or, which is only a legal expression for it, with the relations of property within which they have hitherto moved. From forms of development of the forces of production, these relations change into fetters. Then enters an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the whole gigantic superstructure (the legal and political organisations to which certain social forms of consciousness correspond) is more slowly or more quickly overthrown.[…] One form of society never perishes before all the productive forces are evolved for which it is sufficiently comprehensive, and new or higher conditions of production never step on to the scene before the material conditions of existence of the same have come to light out of the womb of the old society. […] The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production ….. but the productive forces developing in the heart of the bourgeois society create at the same time the material conditions for the solution of this antagonism. The previous history of human society, therefore, terminates with this form of society.”

(NB the […] abbreviations are Bernstein’s)

Bernstein then goes on to reject an economically-deterministic idea of historical materialism that he alleges classical Marxism has built around a particular reading of this passage. He goes on to state his own views on the “proper” relation between the ideological (again construed neutrally as the realm of ideas) thus:

“Modern society is much richer than earlier societies in ideologics [sic] which are not determined by economics and by nature working as an economic force. Sciences, arts, a whole series of social relations are to-day much less dependent on economics than formerly, or, in order to give no room for misconception, the point of economic development attained to-day leaves the ideological, and especially the ethical, factors greater space for independent activity than was formerly the case.”

Adversus Haereses

All orthodoxies carry the imprint of the heresies they were formed to combat, and as the Bersteinian heresy marked the birth of classical Marxism, coming as it did almost immediately after Engels’ death and by the hand of the only writer who had exclusive access to all the unpublished founders writings the others lacked, its imprint defined orthodoxy in lasting ways. The most obvious, in the context of our enquiry here, is that people had to respond to what Bernstein had said about historical materialism getting the relation between economic and political and ideological spheres wrong.

In other words, whatever other problems they felt they had to address, the refuters had to also talk about Marxism and ideology — despite not having access to the key text that they would have needed to understand Marx and Engels’s thought on the subject, now the latter was dead. Under the circumstances, particularly given the relatively recent coinage of the term and the paucity of its development as a shared concept in the available literature, it is understandable that the defenders of orthodoxy in the opening decade of the 1900s were not going to able to guess what the two authors had meant by it, more than 50 years prior, from the handful of remaining clues available.

Ideology: the classical Marxist consensus

The fact remained that the defenders of Marxist orthodoxy against Bernsteinian revisionism were forced to come up with a model of ideology as best they could. To cut a long story short, from Kautsky to Luxemburg, Plekhanov to Lenin, the result was a mostly neutral model of ideology as the differing systems of ideas, proper to different classes and groups defined by the economic base of society (as read from the above-mentioned section of the Preface) and shaped more or less deterministically by the latter.

In other words, in their rush to oppose Bernstein’s conclusion against his economistic reading of those two paragraphs of the Preface, the rebuttals concentrated on refuting the conclusion at the expense of challenging the reading. So the classical Marxist notion of ideology became one that was both neutral and restricted to the subjective realm of ideas (seen as opposed to the objective realm of material production relations) — in short, economistic and class reductionist. And it goes almost without saying that it was a single process model, by default. On the question of whether Marxism itself was an ideology , the general consensus was that it was — the ideology of the working class in its role as gravedigger of the capitalist social order.

Aftermath of WW1: Revolution and Fascism

The period between the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 and the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 was an unprecedented period of peace in a Western Europe whose states had been at war with each other, more or less uninterruptedly, since the early Medieval period. Classical Marxism grew and flowered in this strange new “Belle Epoque” period of modernity. On the eve of WW1 Kautsky was even penning articles on “ultraimperialism” the speculative notion that maybe capitalism was making war obsolete as a barrier or hindrance to the endless pursuit of enlarging trade, production and profit.

Consequently the outbreak of WW1 came as a catastrophic shock to everybody, not least the Marxist movements of the time who witnessed most of their rank and file members and the political parties they thought they owned, flock to the national-chauvinist banners of the local imperialist war efforts. But if the sudden disappearance of any notions of proletarian internationalism and the unprecedented trauma of the war itself were not enough to plunge the Western European workers movement into a sense of crisis, then the outbreak of the 1917 February and October revolutions in Russia completed the complete rupture with any notion of gradual, guaranteed Bernsteinian-style progress to socialism by natural capitalist development.

The influence of October on the workers movement, both in Western Europe and around the world, cannot be overstated. Disillusioned by the failure of the Second International social-democratic parties to avert an inter-imperialist war, workers flocked to the promise of the Bolshevik victory in Russia. Finally someone had found the means to turn all the fine ideas and bold visions of overturning capitalism and founding socialism into a concrete reality! This monumental “propaganda of the deed” granted the new Communist International founded in Moscow an unprecedented ideological and moral authority over all the sections of workers who saw the death-knell of capitalism, and possibly civilisation itself, in the shocking vista of the mechanized mass death factory of the WW1 trenches.

But if the spark of Red October had raised a new hope in the workers movement of a shattered continent, it equally provoked fury and panic in the capitalist and ruling classes of those nations. Fascism announced itself in Italy with Mussolini’s conquest of power in his own October victory in 1922.

First response to Fascism: The United Front

Within days of Mussolini’s accession, the Comintern opened its Fourth World Congress in early November. Despite this coincidence in timing, the main focus of the congress was still nominally the general outlook the Comintern had held since its foundation in the middle of the post-October civil war, in its so-called “First Period”, namely the immediate task of spreading communist insurrection and revolution around Europe and its colonies. (In fact, since the Third Congress of 1921 following the Kronstadt revolt and the disaster of the German “March Action” attempted insurrection, internal momentum was already swinging away from immediate prospects for world-wide revolution). Fascism warranted only a brief mention in the tactics resolutions of the congress

5. International Fascism

Closely linked to the economic offensive of capital is the political offensive of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Its sharpest expression is international fascism. Since falling living standards are now affecting the middle classes, including the civil service, the ruling class is no longer certain that it can rely on the bureaucracy to act as its tool. Instead, it is resorting everywhere to the creation of special White Guards, which are particularly directed against all the revolutionary efforts of the proletariat and are being increasingly used for the forcible suppression of any attempt by the working class to improve its position.

The characteristic feature of ‘classical’ Italian fascism, which at present has the whole country in its grip, is that the fascists not only form counter-revolutionary fighting organisations, armed to the teeth, but also attempt to use social demagogy to gain a base among the masses: in the peasantry, in the petty bourgeoisie and even in a certain section of the proletariat. There is currently a fascist threat in many countries: in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, almost all the Balkan countries, Poland, Germany, Austria, America and even in countries like Norway. The possibility of fascism appearing in one or another form cannot be ruled out even in such countries as France and Britain.

One of the most important tasks of the Communist Parties is to organise resistance to international fascism. They must be at the head of the working class in the fight against the fascist gangs, must be extremely active in setting up united fronts on the question and must make use of illegal methods of organisation.

But the reckless promotion of fascist organisation is the last card in the bourgeoisie’s hand. Open rule by the White Guards also works against the very foundations of bourgeois democracy. The broadest masses of working people become convinced that bourgeois rule is possible only in the form of an undisguised dictatorship over the proletariat.

Basically fascism was dismissed as demagogy by agents of the bourgeoisie in a counter-revolutionary defence of the capitalist status quo. A temporary local setback in the general contest between the bourgeoisie and the revolutionary proletariat. Fascism as a political ideology and phenomena in its own right, with its own autonomous power was not even countenanced. The “White Guards” characterisation had appeared in the previous years resolutions of the 3rd Congress and indicated the Comintern’s tendency to view Fascism through the prism of older known Russian phenomena like the Tsarist White Guards and the Black Hundreds.

Now, in fairness, Mussolini’s regime did not begin, as Hitler’s did later in 1933, with the immediate rounding up and suppression of socialists and communists. The PCd’I was not outlawed until 1926, for instance. So the initial assumption by the communist movement that Mussolini represented no more than a colourful variation on the general pattern of right-wing reactionary elected governments that had come to power periodically during the Belle Epoque was not as outlandish as in now appears. But still there had been enough serious street-fighting between leftists and fascist squaddristi for many of the grass-roots militants to know the difference from “normal” landlord, boss and clerical reaction.

The idea of the United Front had been adopted by the 3rd Comintern congress of 1921. Initially the idea was supposed to be limited to agitation in the imperialist colonies, where communists were supposed to make common cause with national liberationists and the “progressive” local bourgeoisie (i.e. the anti-colonial sections, if and where these actually existed) against the colonial power. However, in the wake of the failure of the “March Action” in Germany, and the adoption of the New Economic Programme in Russia, in the wake of the shock of the Kronstadt uprising, the 1921 congress had also talked of the need for communist parties to avoid isolation by making common cause with socialist parties in defence of workers rights. In the period between the 1921 3rd congress and the 1922 4th congress, communist leaders and militants agitated to extend the United Front to the colonial countries, to formalise the strategy of defensive alliances between socialist and communist parties. However at no time at that stage, was the United Front seen as a primarily anti-fascist strategy, as it was sometimes later portrayed retrospectively by Trotskyists and others.

The road to hell: The Third Period

SPD “Iron Front” propaganda

The tendencies to row back from the post-WW1 euphoria of revolution and the imminent collapse of capitalist already emerging during 1921, finally took control of Comintern direction in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924. Stalin made a tactical alliance with Bukharin, the advocate of the NEP and concentrating on securing the future of the soviet state through the gradual building of “socialism in one country” via internal commerce and economic growth. This “Second Period” reflected the ebbing of the international revolutionary tide that had followed WW1. Internally much energy was taken up by the factional struggles between the would-be heirs of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky and the likes of Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev manoeuvring in between.

Stalin’s eventual victory in 1927 lead to the declaration of the “Third Period” by the Comintern Executive Committee. According to this new periodisation, capitalism was entering its period of final collapse and therefore anybody that stood in the way of the Communist movement’s march to revolutionary victory, was an agent of bourgeois-fascist reaction. The United Front policy of the First and Second periods was torn up — henceforth the socialist parties of the Second International were “social-fascists”. Communist dissidents opposed to the new turn were “Trotskyist fascists”[]. Everybody and anything opposed to the Moscow-Stalin Comintern line were objectively “fascists”. Everyone, that was, except for the actual Nazis and Fascists, who were seen as a lesser problem than the “social-fascists” of the SPD et al. In Germany the KPD adopted the “Schlageter turn” advocated by the Comintern’s Karl Radek. Albert Schlageter was a member of the proto-Fascist Freikorps arrested and shot by the French occupiers of the Ruhr and instantly turned into a German far-right martyr. Radek proposed the KPD join the campaign to lionise Schlageter, side by side with the Nazis and other far-rightests and draw German workers to the KPD by being more nationalist than the Nazis. KPD stewards fought against SPD stewards in the streets. In the spiralling chaos of the disintegrating Weimar republic, the rise to power of the Nazis was initially welcomed by the KPD with their slogan “Nach Hitler, uns!” [After Hitler, us (our turn)!].

1932 KPD Antifa front — more interested in fighting the SPD than the NSDAP, sadly

After Hitler it was to be the KPD’s turn indeed — their turn to be put up against the wall or perish in the concentration camps. With the liquidation of the KPD, alongside their erstwhile “social fascist” enemies of the SPD and assorted “Trotskyist fascist” types, the Comintern realised the Third Period wasn’t working out as planned and performed another 180 degree turn into the (equally doomed, as it turned out) Popular Front strategy.

But from our perspective, as we said at the outset, the Nazi ascendancy and the subsequent annihilation of the flower of the German Marxism in its birthplace, represents the historical end of the classical Marxist era from Engels to Hitler. Although the ideas and strategy of the Third Period may seem like utter madness with the benefit of over half a century’s hindsight, for our purposes here, we have to look more closely at the actual beliefs of the actors of the time and how their viewpoint made credible what now seems unimaginable. This is not by way of special pleading, but so we can see how the ideology that the Comintern and the KPD of the time held, could lead them to such a catastrophic and epochal defeat.

The first factor to be born in mind was the contingent role of blind luck. The Comintern declared the final death-crisis of capitalism to be imminent in 1928. And in 1929 the Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression made the Comintern look like prophets with a gods-eye view of the future. Of course we now know that the Third Period turn was primarily motivated by Stalin’s desire to dump the NEP and pivot to liquidating the kulaks and collectivising agriculture (the very program of those “Trotskyist-fascists” just deposed the previous year). But to the workers and militants of the outside world, none of that was visible, only the Comintern’s seemingly proven ability to predict the future.

The second factor in the Comintern’s inability to ever grasp the nature of the fascist enemy (or even that they were the most dangerous enemy on the horizon) was the classical Marxism model of ideology. If ideologies were determined by material class position, then the workers movement had nothing to fear from “White Guards” or other reactionary stooges of the bourgeoisie. Given the limited numbers the enemy class could draw on, the working class could never fall to bourgeois reaction, by sheer weight of numbers. If all the enemy could muster were the riff-raff of the petty bourgeoisie, declassé dilettantes and lumpen-proletariat, then the idea of the working class losing a “horizontal” contest for street-power was laughable. If economism ruled ideology, then the supposedly marginal number of deluded workers attracted to the fascist cause, would never amount to an independent threat to workers power.

If the class-reductionist economist view of ideology and class was correct, then fascism would never have the numbers to beat the revolutionary proletariat without recruiting a section of the proletariat to the side of the counter-revolution — this was the role of the “social fascists” of the SPD. As early as 1924 Stalin had explained it like this:

Fascism is the bourgeoisie’s fighting organisation that relies on the active support of Social-Democracy. Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism. There is no ground for assuming that the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie can achieve decisive successes in battles, or in governing the country, without the active support of Social-Democracy. There is just as little ground for thinking that Social-Democracy can achieve decisive successes in battles, or in governing the country, without the active support of the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie. These organisations do not negate, but supplement each other. They are not antipodes, they are twins. Fascism is an informal political bloc of these two chief organisations; a bloc, which arose in the circumstances of the post-war crisis of imperialism, and which is intended for combating the proletarian revolution. The bourgeoisie cannot retain power without such a bloc.

Aside from economism, the idea of ideology as an essentially single-process effect and that Marxism was the ideology or “science” proper to the working class meant that ideology was seen exclusively as rational doctrine (i.e. ideology 2 in our model). Given that Mussolini’s rantings, Hitler’s ravings and the output of Fascist and Nazi propaganda was wilfully anti-rationalist agitation of affects and emotions, rather than appeals to logic or cognitive reason, they could only be seen as “demogogy”. As late as 1941 Trotsky was still accusing Mussolini as having “no real ideology”. It may seem bizarre to us today to think of Fascism as being basically “non-ideological”, but from the perspective of Marxists of the classical era whose first reference point for an ideology was Marxism itself, it is understandable that they couldn’t recognise the different style, register and category of fascist ideology. The problem then is that without any analytical grid to distinguish fascist ideology from populist ranting or reactionary demogogy, it is hard to make out the specific threat posed by the former.

Ideology-theory vs ideology-critique

So much for the grim summary of the history of the classical Marxist period and its influence on the struggle against fascism. Due to the need for brevity, the above is a sketch bordering on caricature, and serves more as an incentive for further reading than a definitive overview of an extremely turbulent era. Of course we can never know if a different strategic turn from the Comintern could have prevented the rise to power of the Nazis — possibly not. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t draw conclusions on the unmitigatedly disastrous nature of Third Period ideology and the need to prevent it ever happening again.

Much has been written in the post-war period, especially since much more of Marx and Engels writings, The German Ideology included, became available along with the benefit of historical hindsight. For our purposes we are going to select just two accounts of the relation of classical Marxism’s understanding of ideology to Marx and Engels’ usage. The main source is Jan Rehmann’s Theories of Ideology from the Historical Materialism book series (2013). The other being John Clegg’s unpublished article I mentioned in section 1 of this text, based on Charles W. Mills work.

On the crucial question of whether Marx and Engels use of the term in the German Ideology can be reconciled with the version Lenin knew, both Rehmann and Clegg are agreed, the answer can only be no. Marx and Engels use the term consistently in a negative way that makes it clear that for them there would be no way they could accept that Marxism is an ideology.

What then is their usage? Well Rehman outlines what he sees as the possible meanings or interpretations this way

The task of an ideology-theory is here to develop analytical instruments that allow for an understanding of these ideological inversions, displacements, and enemy-constructs. The term was coined in the 1970s in order to designate a refoundation of Marxist research into ideology stimulated by Louis Althusser. It was distinguished from three other approaches: 1. the reduction of ideologies to epiphenomena of the economic — a tendency often described as ‘economism’ or ‘class-reductionism’; 2. a traditional ideology-critique that understood the ideological as a ‘false’ and ‘inverted’ consciousness, which had to be criticised from the standpoint of a ‘correct consciousness’; 3. ‘legitimacy-theories’ which, following Max Weber and Niklas Luhmann, posed the question of ideological integration in a ‘social-technological’ way, from the perspective of domination and its self-justification.

Later we get a related but slightly different set of options

The fact that Marx and Engels deployed the term ‘ideology’ in different contexts and in different ways resulted in three primary tendencies being derived from their works in subsequent theoretical writings: firstly, an ideology-critical approach, represented in particular by György Lukács and the Frankfurt School, which interpreted ideology as ‘inverted’ or ‘reified’ consciousness; second, a ‘neutral’ concept of ideology, formulated in particular by Lenin and predominant in ‘Marxism-Leninism’, which understood ideology as a class-specific conception of the world and therefore also considered Marxism to be an ‘ideology’; and third, a conception that ranged from Antonio Gramsci to Louis Althusser, and from Stuart Hall to the Projekt Ideologietheorie (PIT), which understood the ideological as the ensemble of apparatuses and forms of praxis that organise the relation of individuals to the self and to the world.

Clearly the third conception above falls outside our remit as all those writers are post-war (with the exception of Gramsci who’s Prison Notebooks also did not become generally available until after the war). Weber and co we also care nothing about, in this context. Our three options are a “neutral” (or positivist) economist/class-reductionist version (like that of classical Marxism), an ideology-critique or an ideology-theory that goes beyond the simple “realm of ideas” concept of the first option, to include apparatuses of power and the sphere of behaviour and practices.

There is not the time and space here to do proper justice to Rehmann’s work, even in the historically restricted frame we have here of comparing Marx and classical Marxist ideas on ideology. Suffice it to say that Theories of Ideology is a worthy selection for the HM series on this subject and anyone interested in this topic (and if you’ve got this far, that’s probably you) will gain a great deal from reading it. From which you can probably guess that I don’t agree with all of it.

Rehmann asserts that while Marx and Engels did not directly outline an ideology-theory (clearly an ideology 2 “concept” in our terms) in the GI, that their usage constitutes an ideology-critique that has sufficient theoretical depth to provide the basis for an ideology-theory. Clegg disagrees and, following Charles Mills, judges (not without some regret) that in fact Marx and Engels just use the term in prosaically negative or pejorative sense, not unlike Napoleon’s.

Rehmann’s thesis is in support of the Project Ideologietheorie (PIT) of Wolfgang Fritz Haug which is covered in a later chapter of the book. While this is strictly outside of our time period, I think its worth summarising my objections, so as to better flesh out what an ideology-theory has to do, or rather what it has to answer.

Crudely there are two vital questions or hurdles that any ideology-theory worth its salt needs to get over to even get out of the gates: “What is Marxism?” and “What is Fascism?”, in ideological terms.

The Haug/PIT/Rehmann theory appears to have an answer to the first question — in the negative, i.e. that Marxism is not an ideology. This statement does have the advantage that its fairly easy to show (now) that Marx and Engels would have approved. But on the other hand, it doesn’t have a positive answer to what Marxism is. PIT formulates ideology as an effect of state power exercised through institutions they term “ideological powers”, following Engels. To incorporate social phenomena such as resistance and subversion, they have to include another “dimension” to the field, which they term “anti-ideology”. Which sounds fine, but then from the discussion of the limitations of “anti-ideological” movements, in practice, it becomes clear that Marxism can’t be included in this dimension, nor the other “cultural” and “proto-ideological” dimensions that PIT add to their ideology-theory. Rather like in Althusser, Marxism appears as a deus ex machina, a force emanating from outside of the model from an untheorised origin.

Similarly, which PIT does talk directly about fascism, again its not clear whether fascism is an ideology or not, at least in the period before it conquers state power. Is it part of the “anti-ideological” dimension while still out of power, but is immediately transformed into an “ideological power (of a fascist type)” once it takes over the reins of the state? How does that even make sense?

Clegg’s treatment of the question is historically wider-framed, in including both classical era and post-war Marxists. He examines the positions of allegedly “neutral” ideologists — Bernstein, Kautsky, Lenin, Lukacs, Gramsi — and critical/pejorative ones — Adorno, Mannheim, Althusser, Debord, Jameson — and concludes that there is an underlying unity to both positions — functionalism. What he means in this case, is that ideology has a social function to uphold the capitalist social order, whether through “false consciousness” (see our discussion of ontological empiricism in section 1) or by being the express purpose of motive of the “dominant ideology”. Clearly such a position has all the circular reasoning and teleological problems of historicist structural-functionalist frameworks (unpacking that takes a while, unfortunately). Clegg goes further an asserts that the core purpose of any ideology-theory has to be answering the question “What is the dominant ideology” which is a question that only has meaning in a functionalist frame. I think it is possible to accept the first part of that without accepting the second.


In summary I accept Mills and Cleggs assertion that there is no ideology-theory (concept) proper in Marx and Engels’ use of the term, either in the 1840s or later on, and that their usage is pejorative and polemical and also notional — in the sense of our dual process “grid”. Which means, I reject Rehmann’s assertion that their usage is not pejorative but an ideology-critique which contained the germ of an ideology-theory within it. That would require their use of the term to be referencing an analytical framework of their own or someone else’s creation. In the 1840s the only pre-existing use of the term as concept was Tracy’s original work, which had mostly been forgotten and overwritten by Napoleon's pejorative sense of “out of touch intellectuals who place the power of ideas over practical experience”. There is no trace of any conceptualisation of the term by either Marx or Engels in the 1840s — and their relative disuse of the term thereafter also strongly suggests that they did not see it as being of any significance in relation to their core critique or conceptual apparatus.

I also accept Clegg’s point about the drive behind both “neutral” and “critical” versions of classical takes on ideology were motivated by the functionalist motive to find the ideology-theory of a “dominant ideology” which is the source of “false consciousness” in the working class, which blocks them from attaining the “true consciousness” of their historic mission as gravediggers of capitalism and midwives of a new socialist mode of production.

However, where I depart from Clegg, is that even if a functionalist ideology-theory is not desirable (or theoretically coherent, outside of the mysticism of a full-blown historicist teleology) and the germ of an ideology-theory is not to be found in Marx and Engels themselves, or any of their epigones — I don’t think it follows that a non-functionalist, non-historicist ideology-theory is impossible. What’s more, I think that it is not only possible but highly desirable, arguably indispensable, to make one.


  1. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
  2. Comintern 4th Congress, Theses on Comintern Tactics https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/4th-congress/tactics.htm
  3. In practice the label “Trotskyist-fascist” was by no means limited to actual Trotskyists. Right-oppositionists (followers of Bukharin), Korsch-ites, councillists, anarchists, pretty much anyone to the left of the social-democrats who deviated from the Comintern line was castigated this way. Even the “more Leninist than Lenin” Italian PCd’I leader Amadeo Bordiga was expelled for “Trotskyist deviations”.
  4. Stalin, Concerning the International Situation 1924 https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1924/09/20.htm