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The Theory of Ideology

whether they are considered as individuals or subgroups, spontaneously create ahierarc~ic structure. All primate communities are hierarchic
structures, otherwise they would not be communities. For this reason I believe that a hierarchy
of responsible leadership, ~adres and teachers
will continue to function in the develoPment and
stabilizing of a grass-roots democratic communism
in China (providing the USSR and the Western
states do not intervene and trigger off another
nuclear war) •
The internal life of individual species and
societies is shaped by their own needs in relation
to their own ecology and time, but the expression
of those needs is also determined by the dialectic
of universal elements which are common to them all.

For example, the permanence and universality of
hierarchy in all organisations of life must be restated again and again, not simply to echo the
universality of an abstract hierarchy, but to
relate the unique and historical character of
changing forms of hierarchy to the essential function of hierarchy itself.

(With equal effect the
concepts of morality, liberty, love and many other
universals may be substituted for the word hierarchy in the context I have just given). In this
way we are all the more prepared for recognising
and distinguishing liberty from tyranny, the

natural from the unnatural, the healthy from the
pathological, and the true from the false.

The alternative to an expanding hist6rical
classification is to regard all societies – from
prehistoric to modern man – as a random series of
specific cultures and histories, each pursuing its
own path regardless of the dialectic procedures of
primate evolution and a general history of mankind.

Distinct histories and social types cannot of
course be fitted tidily into systems and epochs
which follow each other in chronological sequence.

Systems,’ transitions, stages (and stages within
stages) arise synchronously and diachronously,
preceding and following each other in their own
time and space as well as ,in the time-space
complex of an expanding world history. The
proper use of historical classification in this
context will strengthen the continuity of prehistory with history, and may eventually lead to
the construction of a psychogenesis of man.

1 Danilova, L.V., Pre-Capitalist Societies,
Nauka Publishing, Moscow, 1968
2 Marx-Engels Selected Works Vol.2, Lawrence
Wishart, London, 1953
3 Balandier, G., Anthropologie de politique,
AlIen Lane, London, 1970
4 Sahlins, Marshall, Stone Age Economics,
Tavistock Publications, London, 1972

The Theo..y of Ideology:

Some Comments on Mepham· for

Joe McCarney
John Mepham’s paper ‘The Theory of Ideology in
Capital’ 1 is an important contribution to the
debate over Marx’s theory of ideology. It would
not be too much to say that it raises that debate
to a new level, at which the real difficulties of
the subject can be seen. It achieves this largely
through the manner in which so many persuasive
errors and half-truths are identified and rejected.

The views Mepham castigates are commonplace in the
literature, and the treatment of them is a substantial, if negative, achievement. In the light
of it the inadequacy of his positive thesis has
almost a tragic quality. This is enhanced by the
_ way it incurs a fate he has acutely described in
the case of other writers on the !:!ubject, that of
coming to embody, not the theory of ideology, but
merely another ‘ideology of ideology’. Moreover,
the version it offers is particularly disappointing,
at least to anyone who looked to ‘radical philosophy’ for intellectual support of the forces of
radical change in British society.

A convenient way to start this discussion is by
noting a curious discrepancy in Mepham’s paper.

The first paragraph speaks of a need for ‘a theory
of the conditions for the production of knowledge
and of effective practice and, also a theory of the
production of mystification’ (p12). A little later
he remarks that he is thinking of the problem of
ideology ‘in relation to the general questions
“What are the conditions for the,production of
knowledge and \rhat are the conditions for the production of various systems of mystificatory
belief?'” (p13). With these remarks the scene is
apparently being set, but the expected performance
never takes place. In the last sentence of the
paper we are told that:

1 RP2, Summer 1972.



All references are to this

just what Marx’s theory of the conditions
the production of mystification can teach us
about the conditions for the production of knowledge, and for the production of a non-mystifying social reality are not questions which I have
attempted to answer in this paper.

The effect of all this is to leave the reader with
the sense of a specific expectation that has been
aroused but not fulfilled, the expectation that the
discussion will be relevant to questions about the
conditions for the production of knowledge and of ~
revolutionary practice. This is not said here in
order to make a debating point. It is rather than
when taken together the remarks quoted suggest that
something has gone seriously wrong with Mepham’s
programme. Moreover, they offer a clue as to how
one might try to understand What has happened.

This is that the note of incongruity ~y be intelligible in the light of certain general features of
his position. The failure to say anything about
conditions of knowledge and of effective pr~ctice
may not be a merely accidental omission that could
be repaired by extending the original lines of argument. The suggestion is that Mepham cannot give
a satisfactory account of these matters: the stance
he adopts excludes in principle any such pOssibility.

Perhaps the most striking feature of his treatment of ideology is the kind of inflation which
the notion undergoes. Signs of this begin to
appear early in the paper. After the passage quoted above which speaks of a concern with general
questions about the conditions of knowledge and of
systems of mystificatory belief, he continues:

These questions have been raised not only in
relation to ideology but also, for example, in
relation to the history of science and to the
problem of myth in anthropology. As one aspect
(»Ut only one; there are many others) of such
enquiries, progress has been achieved I think
by the rediscovery, paradoxical as it may seem,
of the cognitive basis of some systems of
mystificatory belief.



them from thought.

It is a central theme of the paper that ‘the

relation between reality and ideology ••• is the
Clearly, the considerations which tell against the”,
cognitive relation’ {pl3) and that this rela~ion
comparison with pre-scientific belief systems apply
is the key to the dominance of ideology (pl2).

all the stronger in the case of language. IdeolWe are, it seems, meant to see some analogy in
ogy does not have the integrity or the ramificathis respect between ideology and systems of pretions needed to sustain such c~arisons, and their
scientific magical belief. This is omtnous.

use ,involves a disastrous error’of scale. The exThe wish to treat the distinction between science
tent of this is apparent if one takes them seriousand magic o~ a par with that between science and
ly enough to begin, considerin9 the implications in
ideology is usually a symptom of idealism. Thus,.

any sort of concrete way. Is it really helpful,
the tendency of the literature to which Mepham
‘ ‘~for instance, to think of the worker as enmeshed
refers is to encourage us to think of systems of
in bourgeois ideology in a way analogous to that
magical belief as full-scale alternatives to
in which the member of a primitive society is enscientific world-views; rival, and equally valid,
meshed in the language and culture of ,his tribe?

frameworks’ for conc~iving reality. They are
Such a perspective would surely be foreign to the
supposed to have a ‘cognitive basis in so far as
spirit of Marx’s thinking on the subject. One could
they offer interpretations of experience that are
go on teasing out the anomalies here. It may be
comprehensive and autonomous. But if this is the
more useful however to try to uncover their source
direction in ~ich we are being invited to look
by approaching the question at a different level.

one must register a preliminary protest. To retain
Recognition of the cognitive basis of mystificata link with Marx’s view of what an ideology is,
ory belief would seem to involve the characteristic
one must continue to regard it as falling short in
risk that the differences between what is and what
/ crucial respects. It can hardly escape altogether
is not mystificatory will get blurred. It leads
the suggestion of being in important respects
easily to the ‘insight’ expressed in a remark of
partial and limited. Its comparative richness in
Henri Lefebvre’s which Mepham associates with his
some areas of experience will contrast wi~ in’three theses’ on ideology: ‘Appearances have
competence or irrelevance in others. It does not
reality and reality involves appearances’ (p14).

normally, ‘for instance, permeate the description
This is, from one point of viewj just a way of
and classification of everyday events in the natural recogn1s1ng that the distinction between appearance
order in the way that magic does for its adherents.

and reality has become problematic. For someone
Neither will it be self-contained in the required
like Mepham who thinks of ideology as something
sort of way. Thus, for instance, bourgeois ideolike a total structuring of experience, the problogy and science have largely grown up together in
lem may take a pa~ticularly awkward form. -This
the same historical epoch and the one is to be a
becomes clear if, for instance, one asks how to
considerable extent parasitic on the other. Bourassess the cognitive achievement of ideology as
geois ideology works because up to a point it
compared to other ‘systems’ or ‘languages’. The
successfully parodies the procedures of genuinely
difffculties involved in such comparisons have
scientific modes of thinking about society. We
been widely canvassed and, indeed, form a large
can speak, as Marx does, of ‘unmasking’ in connecpart of the stock in trade of contemporary idealtion with it because these pretensions are hollow
ism. Mepham’s account invites them directly. If,
and are exposed as such by the application of
as he says, our awareness of reality is structured
scientific method, as exemplified in Capital.

through the systematically connected categories
SUch talk would be out of place in connection with
of A matrix of thought, there can be no access to
magic, for it is not a parody of anything. While
it independently of such systems, and direct comideology is the cuckoo in the nest of science, magic parison of them in terms of accordance with an
is of a different genus altogether. In the light
external reality is impossible. Whatever criteria
of this one might already have misgivings about
of truth and objectivity are employed will, it
Mepham’s handling of his central categories. But
seems,’ have to be internal to some particular
it is too early to press the point. We seem to
system or other and so cannot help begging the
have located a possible source of tension in his
fundamental question at issue. There seems to
relationship with Marx’s theory. To get any
remain no point in conceptual space from which an
further here one has to take account of the evid’objective’ verdict on the merits of alternative
ence provided by the next state in the inflation
systems could be delivered. One cannot, for inof ideology.

stance, legitimately contrast the vision of realThis stage is represented by a sustained, though
ity revealed by one with the structure of appearnever precisely worked out, analogy with language:

ances embodied ~n another. The distinction beThe conditions for the production of ideology
tween reality and appearance can at best r~ve
are the aonditions for the production of a languapplication only within systeins and not across
age, and can only be understood by reference to

the structure of forms and social practices
In this way the picture of competing matrices
which systematically enter into the production of
yives rise, and in its standard uses is intended to
particular concepts and propositions in tl~t
give rise, to the problem of conceptual relativism.

language. Ideology is not a collection of disMepham thinks of ideology as providing such another
creet falsehoods but a matrix of thought firmly
matrix, and so it too presumably qualifies under the
grounded in the forms of our social life and
general requirement of tolerance. Now the possi-o~ganised witbin a set of interdependent categorbility of a Marxist critique and unveiling of ideoies. We are not aware of these systematically
logical illusions begins to seem mysterious. The
generative interconnections because our awareness
qbjective basis of the distinction between ideois organised through them.

logical and non-ideological modes of thought is
eroded and Marxism is left as an arbitrary preferThere is an earlier remark which relates bac~ to
ence in favour of a particular language. It is
this last pqint:

precisely this note of arbibrariness that one finds
Ideological language does not just distract
in Mepham’s discussion on the rare occasions it
attention away from real social relations, nor
touches on these. epistemological tangles. For indoes it explain them away, not even does it
stance, there is a foot-note which refers to the
directly deny them. It structura~~y excludes
issue of comparisons between languages:



The difference be.tween the one’ language’ and the
other is one which can be explained in terms of
appearance and reality, or in terms of the aspect
of reality which is its appearance and that which
is its hidden substratum. Thus the difference is
explained by reference to properties of .. the object and not solely of the subject and his idiosyncr~sies.

No doubt these considerations would
form the basis for an explanation of the way in
which Marx’s epistemology escapes the problems
of idealism and re1a tivism wi th which I do -not
deal in this essay.


Here, as elsewhere, the disclaimers about the
scope of the essay should not be taken at face
value, for the issues left over cannot be satisfactorily dealt with in the terms of the original
discussion. Marx’s epistemology escapes the problems of idealism and relativism, but Mepham’ s
does not. It involves them immediately. The inflation of ideology into a matrix for structuring
awareness puts conceptual relativism inescapably
on the agenda, and with it traditional idealist
puzzles about the proper application of the concepts of truth, objectivity and reality. A
Marxist analysis would tackle the problems at their
source and prevent them arising in the way they do
from Mepham’s discussion. It would involve a
basic shift of perspective on the notion of ideologyso as to restore it to its proper scale again.

In this way qne could draw the poison of mystifica,tory claims about its power to structure reality
for us. But Mepham shows no signs of awareness of
the need for suc~ a shift which would in any case
strike at the heart of his conception of the problem. On the other hand he is committed to the
claim to be explicating, rather than improving,
Marx’s theory. The mixture of evasiveness and
blank assertion in the p~ssage quoted above may be
seen as a natural response to the pressures of this

It may help here to consider another passage
which sheds some light on the part played by language in Mepham’s thinking. His ‘first thesis’ on
ideology states that ‘ideology is structured discourse’. In the course of amplifying it he writes:

We cannot understand ideological concepts or
; ideological propositions as standing in some such
one-to-one relation with non-ideological, nondistorted, factual or scientific concepts, propositions or facts. The translation of ideology
(or manifest text) into the true, underlying
(latent) text cannot be performed on a word to
word or proposition to propositibn basis. The
‘true text’ is reconstructed not by a process ‘Of
piecemeal decoding but by the identification of
the generative set of ideological categories and
its replacement by a different set. This different set will be differently constituted in its

internal re1a tions • Anq we must discover the
transformational mechanism whereby the distorted
matrix is, in the historical life process, substituted for the undistorted one.

It is the prohibition of ‘piecemeal decoding’, the
uncovering of one-to-one relationship, that needs
to be looked at here. This will be done in connection with the sketch of Marx’s analysis of the
wage-form. This is the nearest we get in the paper
to an extended treatment of actual examples of
ideological distortion. It seems fair to ask how
far the way in which ideology is overcome in this
case follows the lines suggested by the general
thesis. The lesson of the wage-form example is
quite general in scope, for, as Mepham remarks,
‘Marx’s treatment follows exactly the same form in
relation to all the ~ategories’ (pIS). The,question to be asked here is how well this treatment
can be accommodated by Mepham’s premises.

The analysis consists essentially, as Mepham
makes clear, in showing how the phenomenal form
of ‘wages’ is connected with the real relation,
‘the value of labour power’. The general point
involved is, he remarks, that ‘the transformations
from real-relations to phenomenal forms is a
transformation in which a complex relation (or a
relation of relations, as in the complex wagesmoney-value-commodities, etc) is presented as a
simpl,e relation or is presented as a thing or’the
property of a thing’ (pI6). There seems to be
nothing about this exercise so far that would rule
out talk of ‘piecemeal decoding’ in principle.

Clearly, the fact that the entities involved are
sometimes complex is not enough to do so, still
less to justify on alternative description in terms
of the subs~itutions of one matrix of thought for
another. Let us go on to look at Mepham’s treatment of the kind of-‘ideological discourse’ associated with the example. ‘In this familiar case,’

he writes, ‘we can see some of the connections
between the wag~-form and the ideological concept
of a fair wage’ (pI6). Here again the description
we are given scarcely heralds a radical break with
the uncovering of one-to-one relationships. Nor
are matters greatly altered when he comes to deal
with discourse about the various practices of wagebargaining in which the ideological concept of a
fair wage plays a part (incomes policy, courts of
inquiry, etc). He is entirely successful in showing that when a Marxist analysis in terms of the
categories, real relation (‘the value of_labour
power’), phenomenal form (‘wages’), and ideological
cortcept (‘fair wage’) is applied in this situation
the whole ideological house of cards collapses at
once. This elementary exercise in the use of scientific, method dispels the clouds of mystificatio~,
enabling us to see a particular area of social
reality as it is. But, on Mepham’s own shOWing,
the exercise is not at all like matrix-substitution
or the giving of a translation from one language
into another. It is much more like the replacement of correct for incorrect views using the
resources of a common language. What the example
shows is that ‘ideological discourse’ does not
constitute an independent system. It does, of
course, have a ctia-x-ae.teristically h~avy reliance on
such ideological concepts as ‘a fair wage’. But it
must make use of many non-ideological elements as
well, elements it shares with ‘any discourse that
seeks to make social reality intellig1ble to us.

I-t i-s fhe ex:t:stence Gf ~ conmon elements that
makes the scientific expdsure of ideological distortion possible. A frank recognition of the
necessarily piecemeal nature of much of this
scientific work would be more helpful ‘in our present situation than the announcement of elaborate

programmes that cannot be carried out. This simply ous formula and indeed every element in it stands
in need of explication. But the explication of
encourages the sort of contemplative attitude that
the theory as opposed to the. further elaboration
must postpone indefinitely the task of breaking
of ideologies must have some such starting point.

the grip of bourgeois ideology.

Mepham’s major difficulties stem from th~ fact that
Of course Mepham’s ‘practice’ in dealing with
the link between ideology and class is more intiideological distortion is better than his ‘theory’.

mate than he can allow. One could now reconstruct
Indeed the essential judgement on the “theory’ is
much of the foregoing discussion in the light of
that it cannot yield a coherent account of the
this point. It helps, for i~stance, to explain
‘practice’. This is, as we have seen, a faithful
the nervousness he occasionally shows about the
survey of ground already covered by Marx. Tb not~,
‘~implications of his position and especially about
this is to be t’eminded of a presence lurking in
its relationships to Marx. Thus, for instance,
the background throughout this discussion which
in discussing the ‘new model’ he writes:

must now be brought right to the centre’ of ,our
The problem would be to spell out the properties
attention. Mepham has provided an admirable sketch
of. the new model in such a way as to preserve
of Marx’ s working method, wi thout seeming to realise
certain of Marx’s central tenets; in particular
how embarrassing its implications are for his
the interpretation would have to be compatible
thesis • . E~allY embarrassing, and to this point he
with some notion of historical materialism and
is more sensitive, is Marx’s choice of language in
with the doctrine of the determination in the
speaking of ideology. The use of the camera oblast instance by the ‘economic.

scura model, whatever its difficulties, at least
suggests that it is the uncovering of one-to-one
This problem is insoluble in view of the absence
relationships that is in que~tion. There is moreof the notion of class from the model. If classes
over the constant use of metaphors of ‘unmasking’,
drop out of the picture an essential ingredient in
‘unveiling’ and ‘penetration’ which points in the
the explanatory sc~eme of historical materialism
same direction. It is worth making the simple
and economic determinism has been lost. It is
point that this kind of consistency deserves to be
futile to suppose that anything coherent or disttaken seriously. The constant and unequivocal
inctive can then be retained from these theories.

,pressure it exerts must surely tell in the end on
Here, as elsewhere, Mepham seems to be gesturing
anyone who regards himself as a Marxist. But we
in the direction of objectives that in reality
do not have to rely on hints and guesses to estabhave been abandoned long bemore.

lish the gap between Marx and Mepham on the subWe can pursue this line of thought a bit further
ject of ideology.

by looking again at an issue raised at the beginThe point is more easily made in connection with
ning, the hiatus between the expectations the paper
another aspect of the process of inflation, ‘as
arouses and the author’s final verdict on its scale.

reveale~ in a passage such as this:

It is now clear why, in principle, he can have
••• my view is that the bourgeois class is the
nothing to say about the conditions of knowledge
producer’ of ideas only in the sense that sleep
and of effective practice. The essential points
is the producer of dreams. To say that the
may be made quite simply. The notion of class has
bourgeoisie produces ideas is to ignore that
no significant place in his scheme, and classes
which determines which ideas are thus produced,
are the essential instruments of historical change.

and to conceal the real nature and origins of
Without them there can be no theory of revolutionideology. It is not the bourgeois class that
ary practice, and without such a theory one cannot
produces ideas but bourgeois societ~
form a coherent view of the conditions which’make
possible knowledge as opposed to mystification.

The demotion Gf the concept of social class foreShadowed here is fully worked out in the rest of
The specific form which Mepham’s contribution to
ideology takes is also intelligible in the light
the discussion. It has no important part to play
at any stage. Most significantly, perhaps, it
of these facts. The concept of ideology itself,
does not figure in the ‘new model’ of ideology
once cut off from its material base, begins a new
which is supposed to replace the camera obscura.

career. It comes to represent a free-floating
Indeed it seems to have dropped so far out of the
system of thought, on a par with all the other diswriter’s consciousn~ss that class is not listed
embodied systems so dear to idealists. By this
among the institutions which mediate the experistage the theory of ideology ‘has become an instance
ence of the individual worker, though they inof what it originally set out to analyse.

cl~e the family, the school, the Union, the army,
It would be unfair to leave the discussion here
the football club and the Church. (p19)
without acknowledging once more the significance of
Thus, the essay offers us a truly spectacular
Mepham’s achievement. This consists at one level
example of omission. To note this is to be brought
in the way it brings out what are the crucial
close to the fundamental misconception in its
issues for further investigation. It reminds us
approach,to its subject. If one supposes that
that central to Marx’s thinking about ideology is
bourgeois ideology is produced by bourgeois socithe idea of its peculiarly intimate connection with
ety and not by the bourgeois class a vital reclass. There is undeniably an excessive reliance
straint on’ the flight into mysticism has been
on metaphor in his presentation of it. The task
removed. When bourgeoiS ideology comes to be seen
for Marxist theory in this area is to spell out the
as an effusion from society as a whole it begins
precise nature of the link in a literal way. In
to be plausible to attribute to it the massivedoing this it will have to take account·of the pit-:ness of scale that the essay does. The way is
falls so clearly mapped by Mepham; the t”eliance on
opened for the grandiose analogies it deals in,
crude notions of the creatiott of ideology out of
with all their attendant epistemological difficulclass, interest on the one hand, and the vacuities
of exlsten~ialist interpretations on the other.

ties. Marx, as Mepham says, escapes these probThe fact that his own thesis avoids these dangers
lems. He does so because by keeping its anchoronly to generate a set of empty scholastic
age in the reality of social class his theory or
puzzles points up to the difficulty of the task.

ideology.avoids the first ‘fatal step that leads
It also suggests that the ingenious foolishness
to them. For Marx ideology always remains a classof academic British philosophizing will prove a
based coliection of distortions whose deficiencies
more difficult legacy to shake off than radical
are to be explained in terms of the class’s histophilosophers sometimes suppose.

rical role. This is, of course, not a perspicu-

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