Ideology as a Mouse Trap

Murzban Jal

This essay is based on the following questions: “Can Marxism be understood as an “ideology”, and if so what is the Marxist theory of ideology? How does one place Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology which is a trenchant critique of the entire discipline of ideology and how does one read, place and understand this text when it is now claimed that these manuscripts were written possibly not for publication, but for the purpose of self-clarification?”

Ideology, so Frederic Jameson, informs us, is for Marxism a “mouse trap”. But not only is it a mouse trap which catches the naughty mice, it is fetish created (almost Frankenstein-like monster) which instead of obeying the commands of the master, enslaves this very master. Ideology after becoming a mouse trap catching mice becomes a prison house imprisoning humanity. Once one enters this prison house, like the mouse that has entered the mouse trap, there is no escape. While ideology claims to create the oceanic feeling of oneness where a sense of fraternity is simulated for those who are included in this “brotherhood of ideology”, it primarily creates the “other”, the “other” as Sartre said in his No Exit who is nothing but “hell”. To produce this “brother of believers” and “hell” is the principal task of ideology.

One begins thus with very simple questions in Marx studies: “When the founders of scientific communism, Marx and Engels, had chided the entire discourse of ideology as a form of organized distortion of consciousness and the manipulation of the mind by the ruling elites, then why has this very same type of discourse banished by Marx and his comrade-in-arms returned to haunt Marxism? After all, was it not Eduard Bernstein, the father of revisionism and the one who turned Marxism upside down, who not only supplemented ideology and social reform for revolution, but in the process also supplemented ideology for radical materialist philosophy and science? Then why is one erasing radical theory and supplementing this with ideology?”

The first answer that one gives is that this text was never published in the life time of either Marx or Engels and that the text remained by and large unknown to the world at large like Marx’s A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and the celebrated Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Like the 1844 manuscripts it was published in full (by the celebrated Marxologist David Ryazanov) only in 1932. Yet it takes a canonical status where historical materialism in the form of the “materialist conception of history” along with the critique of ideology first makes its stamp.

The other answer is that the struggles in 19th century Europe defined the nature of discourse where “ideology” came to be used in a supra historical sense where by ideology was meant a Weltanschauung (“word view”) or at best political ideology. Clearly the critical insights of Marx and Engels were missing here. For both Marx and Engels, ideology means alienated Weltanschauung or a political worldview that is totally estranged from real social, material and historical conditions. And despite The German Ideology now known to the world, the critique of ideology is simply forgotten and only the materialist conception of history taken over and remembered devoid of the critique of ideology. In the communist movement it is the legacy of the Second International and thus the legacy of Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and Georgoi Plekhanov that erases Marx and Engels’s contribution.

The German Ideology is largely a polemical work, a text that has not only Marx and Engels as the authors but also Joseph Weydemeyer and Moses Hess. Most certainly it cannot be taken in the sense that the Soviet Union publicized it or even in the sense of Louis Althusser who classified this text as “the works of the break” where an alleged “mature Marx” was emerging from the womb of philosophical humanism to create the grand science of communism. What I would like to say is that The German Ideology is founded in the logic of not the “epistemological break”, a term immortalized by Althusser, but epistemic flows. It is thus a text of great importance.

Here I bring in the important texts of Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank especially their A Political History of the Editions of Marx and Engel’s ‘‘German Ideology Manuscripts’’ which classifies this text as an “intermediary step toward later publications (The Poverty of Philosophy and The Communist Manifesto)”, almost in the sense of a non-existence text. Yes, it is true that like many great works of philosophy and art it is not a finished work. Besides Carver and Blank’s work there has been a long history of critical reflections on The German Ideology. The names of Galina Golwina and Chris Arthur stand out.

But then is it the case that one must consider The German Ideology as a text that never existed, some sort of phantom text that is said to be the invention of the ruse of the 20th century Russian comrades especially David Ryazanov (who was responsible for publishing this text) which no one found out? Then is it the case that “The German Ideology never took place” as Carver suggests ? Did Marx and Engels abandon this celebrated text? While it is most certainly the case that The German Ideology was not published in the life times of Marx and Engels, its existence is reflected a number of times in the works of Marx and Engels, the most important one being Marx’s Preface to his 1859 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. It is in this sense that I say that The German Ideology exists and despite its character as fragmented manuscripts it stands theoretically as an important text in the lexicon of Marx. Besides it being polemical, it also is dramatic. While Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner are the main characters who appear in this critical dramaturgy, the philosophy of the reactionary doctrine of what we know as “True Socialism” also enters the scene of the critique of ideology where these “True” and should one also say “most honest socialists” are seen creating their grand doctrines of the future which are however only recipes found in past history, to be precise in the history of European feudalism.

Consequently, in The German Ideology is found the critique of the philosophy of the Young Hegelians, Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner who were not able to get out from the realm of pure philosophy and pure thoughts and thus unable to reach out to the real world, followed by the critique of the phantasmagorical doctrine of the True Socialists, that the critique of ideology is rooted. Marx and Engels were passionately anti-ideologists and no matter how historians classify The German Ideology sometimes saying that Marx had very little to do with it, even saying that Engels was not so much interested in these manuscripts, where Ryazanov is almost given the authorship of this entire book, The German Ideology is a passionately important text that no hermeneutics of suspicion can cast the doubts of suspicion.

Ideology is seen in The German Ideology as the dreams of Don Quixote who yearns for a utopia that does not exist. And it is here that Don Quixote is seen marching with his faithful Sanscho Panza imagining that windmills are dragons to be vanquished. The great Don is of course a very, very well-read person and resides in the world of “words, words, words”, just as the ideologist resides in the world of “ideas, ideas, ideas”. Reality does not affect him, for it is composed only of “brute and crude matter”. It is the non-philosophers those who do not know the meaning of wisdom who live in the world of matter, so brute and crude. The Don lives in the world of ideas. He tells Sancho about these “ideas”. Sancho is so fascinated with these “ideas” that he jumps on his donkey accompanying the great Don in the voyage of ideas.

Since the Don takes him to the world of the ideas of True Socialism where all matter is declared crude and the class struggle abolished with his magical wand, Sancho is convinced with the Don’s prophecy and the “truth” of “True Socialism”. While the second volume of The German Ideology is dedicated to this doctrine (of True Socialism) it also appears in the Manifesto of the Communist Party where it (the doctrine of “True Socialism”) appears as a third part of what Marx and Engels call “reactionary socialism”, the first being “feudal socialism” and the second being “petty-bourgeois socialism”.

The two authors of the Manifesto also call “True Socialism”, “German Socialism”. That this awful specter of “German Socialism” would again be resurrected in the form of the National Socialist Party in the 1920s that created the fascist holocaust must be noted. What then is the essence of this “German Socialism”? Its essence is that it emerged in a backward capitalist society (unlike the French socialists) where the bourgeois was in conflict with feudalism. The German Socialists critiqued bourgeoisdom when feudalism was prevalent. They borrowed their ideas from the French socialists, but could not implant French social conditions onto Germany.

When the French were involved in actual revolutions, the German philosophers of the eighteenth century talked of “Practical Reason” and when the French revolutionaries exercised their revolutionary will, the German philosophers wrote treatises on the “laws of pure will, of Will as it is bound to be, of true human Will generally”. What one found in German socialism was “purely literary aspect”, literature devoid of literary aspects as well as devoid of any and every touch with reality. And just as Don Quixote entered the spell-bound world of pure fantasy chasing windmills, so too our ideologist lives in the fantasy world of windmills dressed up as dragons. To understand what ideology means and how it functions as wind-mill turned dragon, one moves to a type of dramaturgy where Monsieur Capital is seen conjuring the spirits of the ruling classes from the netherworld and calling this “ideology”. Figuratively speaking this character of “Monsieur Capital” appears in the final part of the third volume of Capital who appears alongside Madam La Terre (or simply “Madam Earth”) performing a spooky ghost-walk all over the globe. This narrative must not be confused with a sort of Romeo Juliet fairy tale of eternal love. Instead what we find is that Madam Earth then gets reified as “Madam Rent”. Why is this so? It is so because Monsieur Capital has, true to his calling, sodomized the earth and converted it to rent.

Monsieur Capital however claims to be innocent. He claims that rent emerging from the soil is akin to apples growing from apple trees. He insists that it is a fact of “nature”. He thus solemnly denies the charges of sodomy. He insists that he is a liberal democrat though from time to time shows fascist tendencies. When put on the dock by Marx on charges of sodomizing the planet he claims innocence. He appeals to the citizens of the world and says how he is working only as per the dictates of nature and God. Monsieur Capital produces not only commodities; he also produces famines and wars, the most saleable of all commodities. And when the masses rebel against the unjust rule of bourgeoisdom, he appeals to their conscience. He then starts producing another commodity called “ideology”.

Thus, to the question: “How does capital, besides sucking blood from living labour, creating famines and wars?”, one answers that it does so through this mass madness called “ideology”, a madness that works through “consent” where the hegemony of the ruling classes is expressed. But ideology is not merely particular ideologies like Stalinist ideology, Nazism, Trumpism, liberal democracy, religious extremism, etc. It is what Marx calls it “ideology in general”, i.e. not this or that ideology, thus not liberal, socialist or fascist ideology, but “ideology as such”, thus it is this “ideology as such” that is the problem. Ideology in general then takes a post-political form and invades the space of academia and gets involved in academic neutrality wherein a new ideology called “post-ideology” is created.

The core of this ideological problematic is creating deception where the essence of social reality is veiled. Thus instead of talking of capital exploiting wage labour, ideology talks of gods and the devils, Jews and Muslims, heavens and hell. Monsieur Capital thus operates through deception where he actively distorts real history. The founders of modern communism call this distortion and appeal to lies “ideology”. Thus “the almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted conception of…history or to a complete abstraction from it”.

This view is articulated in detail in The German Ideology which says that ideological consciousness totally disregards the real basis of history which is later expressed by Engels in his 1893 letter to Franz Mehring as “false consciousness”. It is important to note that ideology can be nothing but false for it is consciousness which operates in “inverted form” where everything goes “topsy-turvy” and “upside down”. That this theory of consciousness appearing upside down also appears in the young Marx’s critique of religion as the inverted consciousness of an inverted world must also be stated. Ideology and religion thus meet and the critique of religion is now turned into the critique of ideology.

Note now the criticism of Marx and Engels to the question of ideology. Thus “in all ideology men and their relations appear upside-down as in camera obscura”. They thus state “why the ideologists turn everything upside-down (auf den Kopf stellen).”

What happens is that in Marx’s rendering of religion as “the general theory of the world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form” is now operationalized in the terrain of ideology. Thus what we say is that ideology is the general theory of the modem bourgeois world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form. Ideology thus becomes the secularization of religion; in fact it becomes the perfection of religion in developed capitalism. But not only is ideology religion, it takes the form of messianic religions with its revelations and prophecies.

That this theme of inverted consciousness and messianic religions is then related to the production of commodities, in fact the mass production of commodities by a class of industrial workers, must be emphasized. Ideology thus emerges only and solely from the mass production of commodities. In fact one can say that just as commodities secrete exchange value, they likewise secrete ideology. That this is the theme that Slavoj Zizek picks up and relates Jacques Lacan with Marx, where Lacan’s idea of fantasy is related to Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, must also be emphasized.

Note here the theme of “fantastic reality” (phantastischen Wirklichkeit) that is created in which the idea of the superman is fashioned. What must also be noted is that capitalism creates a “fantastic realization (die phantastische Verwirklichung) of the human essence (with its superman) since the human essence has not acquired any true reality” which then in turn leads to the heavens of “imaginary flowers”, the principal “fantasy” (phantasielose) of class divided society. That this theme appears throughout Marx’s repertoire, where the analysis of the production of the phantasmagorical world of supermen and imaginary flowers is made central to scientific analysis of ideology production, must be noted.

Turn to The German Ideology where Marx and Engels talk of “childlike fancies” (kindlichen Phantasien) created by the ideologist living in “fantastic isolation” (phantastischen Abgeschlo-ssenheit) where nothing but “fantasies” (Phantasien) are created. Here real historical events “receive no mention”. What we get is “a narrative based not on research but on arbitrary constrictions and literary gossip…”

Ideology is thus not merely deception and creation of false consciousness; it is the necessary act of creating illusions. But then if this is indeed the case, then why did Marxism take this “ideological turn” where the Denkverbot or the prohibition against thinking is seen replacing critical reason, and where conformism and fascist tendencies are able to replace argumentative imagination and humanism, where Hitler appears instead of the German Enlightenment and Stalin replaces Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and millions and millions of poets and fighters of the international revolution? To understand this theme we move to the study of the relation between state and ideology where now Monsieur Capital becomes Monsieur State and Madam Earth (after her initial baptism as “Madam Rent”) becomes “Madam Ideology”.

Now we know from the basics of Marxism that next to production is reproduction, reproductive acts that the Monsieur and Madams of the world carry out at regular intervals with or without fantasies. Political economy needs after all libidinal economy, just as Marx needs Freud to not only interpellate the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, but to destroy capitalism itself.

From one of the lessons, one learns from Althusser is his reading of ideology where he says that just as the reproduction of labour power is necessary to produce surplus value and to get the engine of capital accumulation running, so too ideology is necessary to maintain the existence of capitalism. Ideology for capitalism is thus a necessity and not merely a contingency. Thus ideology is necessary for capital accumulation, just as the reproduction of labour power is necessary to extract capitalist profits and theology and the reactionary Church was necessary for European feudalism.

It is in this reading of placing ideology in the text of historical materialism that we bring in once again our principal characters Monsieur Capital and Madam Earth (then becoming Madam Rent after being sodomized by Monsieur Capital and then Madam Ideology after her marriage to this awful Monsieur). But we all, the citizens of this planet who belong to earth, are also sodomized by Monsieur Capital. We ought to have protested against this sodomy, but instead we take pleasure in it. This pleasure principle is derived from ideology. Ideology is thus the signifier of the capitalist sodomy. That is why it is important to repeat that whether ideology is Stalinist, Maoist, fascist, liberal democrat, religious fundamentalist, conservative, etc.,, ideology is nothing but the act of reproduction of the bourgeoisie where Monsieur Capital sodomizes Madam Earth and Monsieur State and Madam Ideology make so-called passionate love that would embarrass all the Romeos and Juliets of the world.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021