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The Theory of Ideology in Capital

John mepham
“There must be some way out of here”
Said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief”

Where do incorrect ideas come from?

In What is to be Done? Lenin argues that “the spontaneous
development of the working-class movement leads to its subordInation to bourgeois ideology”. (1)
It is the necessity of going
beyond the spontaneous development of the movement that is the
basis of his argument for a three-fold struggle, theoretical,
political and economic. It is in the same context that he makes
the famous statement that “without revolutionary theory there
can be no revolutionary movement”. (2)
What are the epistemological bases of these interconnected necessities, the
spontaneous dominance of bourgeois ideology and the need for

Standing behind such analyses there must be a theory
of the conditions for the production of knowledge and of
effective practice and also a theory of the production of
mystification. In What is to be Done?, which is not intended
as a work on the theory of knowledge, Lenin only offers a
passing remark about the origins of mystification. “But why,
the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination
of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois
ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that
it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal
immeasurably more means of dissemination”. (3)
Now I think that this statement is, not surprisingly
given its context, incomplete, and is open to misinterpretation.

It may suggest a view that is very common but which is, in my
opinion, fundamentally mistaken. This view, which is an
ideology of ideology, is that the dominance of bourgeois ideology
has its basis in the dominance of the bourgeoisie as a class
only in the sense that this dominance as a class allows the
bourgeoisie to have a monopoly on the production and dissemination of ideas. Thus, from the point of view of the workers
ideas have their origin in the means of the dissemination of
ideas produced originally elsewhere. Ideas are transmitted,
via cultural and educational institutions, public communications systems and so on, into the otherwise empty minds of the
working class. It could be that conditions in mid-twentieth
century bourgeois society are such as to spontaneously suggest
this view. There is no doubt that mid-twentieth century
capitalism does generate a formidable semic pollution to a
degree and of kinds quite unimaginable one hundred or even
fifty years ago.

The very forms and modern technological
means of the production and dissemination of ideas (the
“advertising industry”, the “public” television and radio
systems, political campaigns designed around the production
of “images” of politicians etc.etc.) do seem to suggest a
social division between the producers of ideas (advertising
copy writers, press agents, speech writers etc.) and the
consumers of ideas (“the public”). (4)
And some writers who
have attempted to diagnose our contemporary condition (“onedimensional man”) do, perhaps because of this, stumble sometimes into the error of mislocating the source of mystification
in the way defined above. Marcuse, for example;· in his essay
“Repressive Tolerance” tends to identify the conditions under
which people live and think, and which thereby determine what

Lenin What is to be Done? (Moscow 1969) p4l


ibid p25


ibid p42

( 4)

For some exhilarating analyses, based on structuralist
linguistics, of some of these semiological phenomena
see Roland Barthes Mythologies (Cape 1972)


they think, with the “prevailing indoctrination” by the “media”,
advertisements and so on to which they are exposed. He says
“The people exposed to this impartiality are no tabulae rasae,
they are indoctrinated by the conditions under which they live
and think and which they do not transcend. To enable them to
become autonomous, to find by themselves what is true and what
is false for man in the existing society, they would have to
be freed from the prevailing indoctrination … “.

‘tlifferent opinions and ‘philosophies’ can no longer compete
peacefully for adherence and persuasion on rational grounds:

the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is organised and delimited by
those who determine the national and the individual
interest.” (5)
Perhaps if it were only Marcuse who made this
mistake it would not deserve so much emphasis here. I believe,
however, that it is a mistake very commonly made by, for
example, the students that I teach, and it is perhaps what
Marx would call a “natural and spontaneous mode of thought” in
contemporary capitalist society. If this is so then this view
is self-refuting because it would itself be ideology which has
its origins in something other than the indoctrination which
it identifies as the origins of ideology.

In what follows I do not, of course, intend to deny for
one moment that the bourgeoisie do control the means for the
dissemination of ideas in Lenin’S-sense, nor that they do use
this control as a powerful weapon in the defence of their
class-interests. But my view is that the bourgeois class is
the producer of ideas only in the sense that sleep is the
producer of dreams.

To say that the bourgeoisie produces
ideas is to ignore the conditions that make this possible, to
ignore that which determines which ideas are thus produced,
and to conceal the real nature and origins of ideology. It
is not the bourgeois class that produces ideas but bourgeois
society. And the effective dissemination of ideas is only
possible because, or to the extent that, the ideas thus
disseminated are ideas which, for quite different reasons, do
have a sufficient degree of effectiveness both in rendering
social reality intelligible and in guiding practice within it
for them to be apparently acceptable. It is the relation
between ideology and reality that is the key to its dominance.

To show this one would have to explore the relation between
the “representations in mens’ brains” and the reality of which
these are representations both as a cognitive and as a practical
relation. In what follows I will for the most part be concerned
with the cognitive aspect of this relation.

The Theory of Ideology in The German Ideology
The obvious place to begin is with those passages in
The German Ideology in which Marx discusses the epistemology
of mystification. But my claim will be that, in fact, Marx
has not, in such early works on which discussions of ideology
are usually based, achieved a clear theoretical position on
the origin of ideology, and that the metaphors in terms of
which he discusses the problem have to be drastically modified
in the light of what he says in his later works.

I claim
that on this epistemological question of the origin of incorrect ideas Capital is a great advance on The German Ideology.

In familiar and typical passages from !he German
Ideology Marx says. (6)
“If in all ideology men and their circumstances
appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this
phenomenon arises just as much from their historical


Herbert MarcuSe “Repressive Tolerance” in A Critique
of Pure Tolerance by Marcuse (Beacon Press 1965)
pp98. 110


German Idelogy; given for example in ed. Lewis Feuer
Marx and Engels. Basic writings on Politics and
PhIlosophy p247

–.r–life process as the inversion of objects on the retina
does from their physical life process …. we set out
from real, active men, and on the basis of their real
life process we demonstrate the development of the
ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also,
necessarily, sublimates of their material lUfe process,
which is empirically verifiable and bound to material
premises …. ”

is composed, or out of which it is constructed, are independent
of one another,and that they can be traced back to atomistic
ideas which are derived from reality “one at a time”, or on a
one-to-one basis (as for example in the relation A to C in the
camera obscura metaphor). We cannot understand ideological
concepts or ideOlogical propositions as standing in some such
one-to-one relation with non-ideOlogical, non-distorted,
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 proposition 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
relations. And we must discover the transformational
mechanism whereby the distorted matrix is, in the historical
life process, substituted for the undistorted one.

Now this is not a clear statement. Marx is here struggling
to discover an adequate language and the result is a series of
metaphors which are the symptoms of his failure (not that
metaphors as such are a symptom of failure in philosophy. Here
it is the profusion of them which suggests that none of them
alone satisfies the author – camera obscura, reflexes, echoes,
phantoms, sublimates …. )
Also the passage is open to many
different interpretations.

Perhaps most unfortunately the
words “empirically verifiable” and “material premises” taken
together with the word “phantom” suggest a positivist interpretation. This would be that ideology arises from the
tendency to be taken in by phantoms in such a way that the
victim simply overlooks or is distracted from “empirically
verifiable facts” that would otherwise be obvious and clear.

Thesis 2
The relation between reality and ideology (which
produces “inversion”) is the cognitive relation. That is to
say that mystification has its basis in the perception of the
apparently intelligible order of social reality by a process
of “misrecognition”.

An implication of this second thesis
is that ideology does not derive fundamentally from the
intention to deceive others, from self-deception, or in the
perversion of cognition by its being infected with values
(for example the value of self- or class-interests). Nor
does ideology derive fundamentally from the cognitive function
being over”helmed by non-cognitive functions such as the
emotions, feelings or passions. I am not denying that ideology
does have the effect of, or does constitute mystification or
deception, and that it does function as a defence of classinterests, and does have the result that what appears to be
objective, positive, scientific discourse is not in fact

As a way of focusing later on the model of relations
involved in the production of ideology which I will extract
from Capital it will be useful at this point to make explicit
some of the features inv olved in the use of the camera obscura
metaphor. This metaphor involves the following representations
of the relations between reality and ideas.



men and their



Physical Life
Historical Life

class struggle
“Abolition of the
wages system”

I’ll try to clarify this second thesis and its implic~­
tions by reference to some analogies.

This will also help
to locate this discussion in a broader context. I am thinking
of the problem of ideology in relation to the general questions
“What are the conditions for the production of knowledge and
what are the conditions for the production of various system5
of mystificatory belief?”. 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. (7) As one aspect (but 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. The
history of science makes great strides to the extent that it
rejects the view that “prescientific” systems of belief and
practice such as alchemy or natural magic resulted from
simple lack of interest in the empirical facts, or from
ignorance of the importance of empirical study, or from simple
empirical mistakes or oversights; and also rejects the view
that such systems were essentially the result of enterprises
that were overwhelmed entirely hy non-cognitive subjective
forces (eg., greed or “mysticism”). One might claim in fact
that such systens were possible hy virtue of the fact that
they were too firmly established on the basis of the
“immediate1Yperceivable” forms of empirical reality (such a~
for example the occurance of the transformation of apparently
elemental substances, systems of perceivable relations of
analogy, s>~pathy and antipathy and so oneS) ). Similarly
anthropological study of myth has progressed to the extent
that it has refused the ethnocentric prejudice that myth is
pure “superstition” satisfying only affective demands or that
it is infantile proto-science which paid insufficient attention
to detailed empirical facts. This is clearly one of the main
themes of Levi-Strauss in La Pen see Sauvage. ~lsewhere
Levi-Strauss identifies the main mistake in the work of
Levy-Bruhl by saying that “he denied to ‘primitive mentality’

the cognitive character which he had initially conceded to it,
and cast it back entirely into the realm of affectivity.” (9)

SCl;) UE :lSWn;).!1;)
.I1_Cllp PUE UClW

legal equality
national interest
“A fair day’s wage
for a fair day’s work”

This metephor suggests that in the production of ideology
there are the following aspects:

(i) three independent entities; the real object A, the
representation C, and the mediating entity (light) B
which effects the production of the latter from the
former. Each idea is the distorted representation
of some one “thing” in reality to which it corresponds
in a one-to-one manner.

(ii) the relation between A and C is one of inversion. The
transformation A to C preserves all internal relations.

(iii) the metaphor not only suggests the independence of
the entity reflected, A, (it doesn’t need C in order
to exist) and denies the independence of C (ideas are
not themselves among the conditions for the production
of ideas), but also suggests that representations are
in some sense “mere illusions” (an epistemOlogical
thesis) and “mere epiphenomena” or “phantoms” (an
ontological thesis). It seems to follow that they
(the representations) can therefore have no element
of either truth or practical effectiveness.

suggestions amount to a thesis of crude materialism
with which Marx certainly disagreed. Why then is
Marx so fascinated with this metaphor which is very
frequent throughout his work and which has lead to
gross misinterpretations of his views?

Thesis 3
Ideology arises from the opacity of reality, where
the opacity of reality is the fact that the forms in which
reality “presents itself” to men, or the forms of its appearance,
conceal those real relations which thenselves produce the

This thesis involves the introduction of the
concepts phenomenal form,real relation and opacity. It is
stated explicitly by r·larx, for example in Vol 1 chapter 19 which
is called “The Transformation of the Value of Lahour-Fower
into Wages”. ‘Value of Labour-Power’ is the name of a real
relation, and ‘Wages’ (or the wage-form) is a phenomenal form.

The selling of the commodity labour-power is the real relation
of exchange which is transformed, in experience, into the

The Structure of Ideology and its Relation to Reality
I shall now state three theses concerning the structure
of ideology and its relation to reality. These theses are
stated in such a way as to make it clear that they are
different from views on ideology mentioned above. I shall in
following sections show how these theses amount to a part of
a theory of ideology that is implicit in Capital.

Thesis 1
Ideology is structured discourse. It is, directly
or indirectly, based on or generated by a set of mutually
interdependent categories. The view that ideology is made up
of ideas is itself misleading to the extent that this has been
taken in philosophy to suggest that the units of which ideology



One might have added here “also in relation to the
problem of madness” with reference to the work ‘0f
Foucault Histoire de la Folie


cf. M. Foucault The Order of Things chapter 2 “The
Prose of the World”


C. Levi-Strauss The Scope of Anthropology (Cape Editions
19(7) p41

and this in connection with the discussion of many ditferent
categories (not only in connection with the famous fetishism
of commodities) .~rman Geras has listed some of its
occurrences. (12)
His examples, and those given elsewhere
in this paper mostly relate to a discussion of basic socioeconomic formations, but it is important to notice that the
distinction is also used in relation, for example, to the
theory of the State and of the class struggle. (13) (14)

mystifying phenomenal form Wages or wage-contract, thus
qisguising the real nature of the social relations involved in
transactions between capitalist and labourer in bourgeois
society. In political economy the mystified form “value of
labour” (as distinct from the “value of labour power”) is
identified with wages. (10)
Hence, we may understand the decisive importance
of the transformation of value and price of labourpower into the form of wages, or into the value and
price of labour itself. This phenomenal form, which
makes the actual relation invisible, and, indeed,
shows the direct opposite of that relation, forms the
basis of all the juridical notions of both labourer
and capitalist, of all the mystifications of the
capitalist mode of production, of all its illusions
as to liberty, of all the apologetic shifts of the
vulgar economists.


” … the different states of the different civilised
countries, in spite of their manifold diversity of
form, all have this in common, that they are based
on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less
capitalistically developed.

They have, therefore,
also certain essential features in common.

In this
sense it is possible to speak of the “present-day
state” …. ” (Emphases mine)
“It is altogether self-evident that, to be able to
fight at all, the working class must organise itself
at home as a class and that its own country is the
immediate arena of its struggle. In so far its class
struggle is national, not in substance, but, as the
Communist Manifesto says, “in form”!’ (Emphases mine)

This third thesis involves an important aspect of
Marx’s epistemology, namely his distinction between “phenomenal
forms” (or appearances) and “real relations” as developed in
Capital in the context of a critique of the categories of
poli tical economy. ~larx himself thought his most fundamental
theoretical breakthrough the discovery of the true concept of
surplus value which enabled him to penetrate in a rigorous
way to the secret and hidden realities of capitalism. It is
this theoretical advance that also allows I-Iarx to make a
decisive move beyond the ambiguities of his earlier remarks
on ideology. Marx’s claim is then that it is the importance
of the phenomenal forms that they render invisible real
relations and hence give rise to bourgeois ideology. Here js
another example of ‘Iarx’ s use of these concepts.

And note that in such cases as these Marx is also, as in the
cases I’ll be analysing later, discussing the origin or basis
of ideology (the ideology of the independence of the state
and society in the first case, and that of nationalism in the

This distinction between phenomenal form and real relation
is applied both to the order of reality and to the order of
language and thought (“phenomenal forms appear as modes of
thought”). Wages, for example, are an aspect of social
reality, namely its phenomenal aspect. And the category
‘wages’ or ‘price of labour’ is a conceptual category. We
think about and talk about social relations in these terms
because these categories have the same form that reality has,
because this is the form in which reality “is presented to us”.

‘Value of labour-power’ is both a real relation, the exchange
relation between the worker and the capitalist, and it is a
scientific category in terms of which we understand that real
relation. This means that the distinction is not a superficial
one, a simple rewording of some such commonsense distinctions
as those between “superficial” and “profound” or “confused”
and “clear”. It is a distinction that contains a substantial
epistemological theory about the relation between thought and
reality and about the origins of illusions about reality. This
theory is that the origin of ideological illusions is in the
phenomenal forms of reality itself.

” … i n respect to the phenomenal form,’ value and
price of labour’, or ‘wages’, as contrasted with
the essential relation manifested therein, viz.,
the value and price of labour-power, the same
difference holds in respect to all phenomena and their
hidden substratum. The former appear directly and
spontaneously as current modes of thought; the latter
must first be discovereri. hy science. Classical Political
Economy nearly touches the true relation of things,
without, hm”ever, consciously formulating it. This it
cannot so long as it st_icks in its bourgeois skin.”
(542) (Emphases nine)

Notice that here ~Iarx is making a general point (“the same
difference holds in respect to all phenomena and their hidden
substratum”), and is not limiting his remarks to this
particular categorial transformation and mysti fjcation. And
secondly it should be noted that Marx is here providing us
with an answer to the question with which we started “Why
does the spontaneolls movement lead to the domination of
bourgeois ideology?”, namely that phenomenal forms appear
“directly and spontaneously as current modes of thought”.

This theory is also presented by Marx using the concepts
‘imperceptibility’, ‘invisibility’ and related notions. In
these terms the theory says that it is a feature of social
life, and in particular the life of social production, that
it is so structured as to render that social reality sometimes opaque to its participants. The invisibility of real
relations derives from the visibility of outward appearances
or forms. The apparent immediacy of these forms obscures their
mystificatory character. For example of the commodity-form
and of the systematic illusion of individual freedom Marx says

These three theses stated in this section can be summed
up in a remark by Henri Lefebvre, (11)
“Social reality, ie. interacting human individuals
and groups, produces appearances which are something
J:1Ore and else than mere illusions. Such appearances
are the modes in ~/hich human activities manifest
themselves within the whole they constitute at any
given moment – cal.l them modalities of consciousness.

They have far greater consistency, let alone coherence,
than mere illusions or ordinary lies.

have reality, and reality involves appearances.”

“It is, however, just this ultimate money-form of
the world of commodities that actually conceals,
instead of disclosing, the social character of
private labour, and the social relations between
individual producers.” (76)
“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply
because in it the social character of men’s labour
appears to them as an objective character stamped upon
the product of that labour;because the relatiop of the
producers to the sum total of their own labour is
presented to them as a social relation, existing
not between themselves, but between the products of
their labour.

This is the reason why the products of
labour become commodities, social things whose qualities
are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible

I think that, if true these theses necessitate
drastic and illuminating modifications to the camera obscura
metaphor in ways which I will explain later.

Phenomenal Forms and Real ReIations
Before going on to give a detailed account of Marx’s
use of this distinction in relation to his analysis of the
categories of political economy I’ll give in this section
further clarification and elaboration of Marx’s general
thesis. The distinction is referred to in Capital by a
variety of interchangable terms. Phenomenal forms are
called semblances, appearances, estranged outward appearances,
illusions, forms, forms of manifestation. Real relations
are called essences, real nature, actual relations, secret
or hidden substratum, content, inner connections. And the
distinction is a systematic one in Marx’s later writings.

That is to say it is not invoked in an ad hoc fashion nor is
it appealed to only infrequently.

It is involved systematically at each point where the problem of mystification arises,

All quotes from Capital are from volume 1 of the Moore
and Aveling translation, Moscow 1961, and the page
references are given in the text after each quote.

(11 )

Henri Lefebvre The Sociology of Marx (AlIen Lane the
Penguin Press 1968) p62

by the senses.” (72)
“The Roman slave was held by fetters: the wage-labourer
is bound to his owner by invisible threads.

appearance of independence is kept up by means of a
constant change of employers, and by the fictio juris of
a contract.” (574)
(my emphases throughout)

In Geras’ words then Marx is providing us with an
analysis of “the mechanisms by which capitalist society



Norman Geras “Essence and Appearance; Aspects of
Fetishism in Marx’s Capital” New Left Review 65
Jan-Feb 1971 p69


Critique of the Gotha Programme in Marx and Engels
Selected Works (Moscow 1962) volume 2 p32


Critique of the Gotha Programme p27

is retained by the capitalist. (18)
have value.

necessarily appears to its agents as something other than it
really is …. ,.

It is because there exists, at the interior
of capitalist society, a kind of internal rupture between the
social relations which obtain and the manner in which they
are experienced.” (15) The function of ideology is to keep
hidden the real social relations. But the possibility of
performing this function is not given in the pos~ibility of
some individual wishing to perform this function, or
deliberately designing a language, or using a discourse in
which it may be performed. Ideological language does not just
distract attention away from real social relations, nor does
it explain t~em away, nor even does it directly deny them.

It structurally excludes them from thought. And this is
because the phenomenal forms of social life constitute not
merely a realm of appearances of particulars, but appearances
articulated upon a semantic field. Social life is a domain
of meanings with which men “spontaneously” think their
relations to other men and to nature. It is therefore not
accurately captured in the idealist notion of a “world-view”.

Social life is structured like a language; or rather
the conditions that make it possihle for social life to be
of a particular kind Ca particular mode of production) are
also conditions for the possibility of a particular language.

These conditions are material conditions and are the social
practices which constitute a particular mode of production.

The “natural self-understood” meanings encountered in social
life form a text which we need to decipher to discover its
true meaning.

“Labour is the substance and the immanent measure
of value, but has itself no value.

In the expression
“value of labour”, the idea of value is not only
completely obliterated, but actually reversed. It
is an expression as imaginary as the value of the

These imaginary expressions, arise, however,
from the relations of production themselves. They
are categories for the phenomenal forms of essential
relations.” (537)

Imaginary expressions have their home in the ordinary
language of everyday life.

“Classical Political Economy
borrowed from every-day life the category “price of labour”
without further criticism … ” (537)
“On the surface of bourgeois society the wage of
the labourer appears as the price of labour, a
certain quantity of money that is paid for a
certain quanti ty of labour. Thus people speak of
the value of labour” (535)

For Marx the fact that people speak of the value of labour
that this is a “spontaneous, natural” mode of speech under
capitalism, shows that “ordinary language”, far from being
something to which we should appeal in theoretical discussion,
is something which we have good grounds for suspecting of
distortion. Ordinary language is the repository of category
mistakes. Theoretical discourse corrects ordinary language,
tells us what we should say. Ordinary language, and the
philosophy which makes a fetish of it, has, as ~larx says,
things standing on their heads.

“The characters that stamp products as commodities,
and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary
to the circulation of commodities, have already
acquired the stability of natural, self-understood
forms of social life before man seeks to decipher …

their meaning.” (75)

The fact that the wage-form has the form of an exchange
of equivalents, then, disguises the reality which is that
wage-labour contains unpaid labour and is the source of

One can consider the working day as divided
into that period in which the labourer works to create value
equivalent to his own needs of means of subsistence, and
another period in which he works to create value given
gratis to the capitalist. One of ~larx’s criticisms of the
Gotha Programme was that it had fallen hack into the modes
of thought of bourgeois ideology on this point and he restates,
in his Critique his analysis of the real relations involved.


I think that the theory of ideology which I’ve been
presenting can only be clear if it is examined in its
application in detailed analyses. (17) Lack of space here
means that I’ll only be able to present sketches of Marx’s
analyses. I’ll give four sketches using each as a way of
making a general point. I’ll deal mostly with the wage-form
and the money-form but it’s important to note that Marx’s
treatment follows exactly the same lines in relation to
all the categories (commodity-form , value-form etc). I use
mainly the wage-form partly for ease of exposition and
partly because of its clear and direct connection with the
problem of the dominance of bourgeois ideology in Trades
Union practice.

” …. wages are not what they appear to be, namely,
the value, or price, of labour, but only a masked
form for the value, or price, of labour-power …

it was made clear that the wage-worker has permission
to work for his own subsistence, that is, to live,
only in so far as he works for a certain time gratis
for the capitalist ….. the system of wage-labour is
a system of slavery .. whether the worker receives better
or worse payment.” (Marx’ s emphases)

The Mystification of the Wage-Form
The wage payment seems to involve a fair exchange of

“If history took a long time to get at the bottom
of the mystery of wages, nothing, on the other hand,
is more easy to understand than the necessity, the
raison d’etre, of this phenomenon. The exchange
between capital and labour at first presents itself
to the mind in the same guise as the buying and selling
of all other commodities.

The buyer gives a certain
sum of money, the seller an article of a nature
different from money”. (540).

It is for this reason that the notion of a “fair wage”,
another of the imaginary expressions of everyday life, is an
absurd one.

The very meaning of wages which is now deciphered
is the extraction of unpaid labour.

Therefore wages are
unfai r as such. (20)

Marx’s argument here depends on his distinction between labour
and labour-power. That which is sold by the worker is his
labour-power; the capitalist buys the labourer’s capacity to
work for a certain period of time. The labour performed in
that period creates value. It creates as much value as is
paid back to the worker as his wage, and it creates value
over and above this amount, it creates surplus-value which


Geras art. cit. p7l


The notion of “world-views” tends to be explained
on the model of Gestalt-switch experiences of visual
perception. Marx’s view clearly differs from this in
at least this basic respect. The difference between
the one “language” and the other is one which can he
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
idiosyncracies. 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 relativism with which I do not· deal in this essay.


This presentation of the concept of surplus-value is
certainly fetishi.stic in as much as it says of various
things (labour-power, commodities) that they have
value. The relation between labour and value-caTInot
be presented here more accurately for lack of space it would involve noting at least two movements of
totalisation (a) the labour of the individual does
not in itself have a relation to value or surplusvalue, but only as a component of the aggregate of
social labour (b) the value of the products of labour
is correctly understood only in relation to their
multiple appearance both as products and as commodities,
and hence their location in the spheres both of
production and of consumption. Tne 1857 Introduction
(see note 17) is invaluable in its discussion of the
semantic and logical problems involved here. A fuller
presentation of these relations would be too complex
given the space available but would only strengthen
and further support the points I am making in the
text. Marx himself often appeals, in passing, to such
oversimplified examples for ease of presentation.


Critique of the Gotha Programme, Selected Works volume
2 p29



I also think that a full treatment of these problems
would require a close examination of Marx’s theory of
categories given in the 1857 Introduction to the
Critique of Political Economy, especially the section
“The Method of Political Economy”. This is now
available in David McLellan Marx’s Grundrisse
(Macmillan 1971) pp 33-43

Labour itself does not



points out that wages take a variety of forms
“a fact not recognisable in the ordinary economic
treatises which, exclusively interested in the material
side of the question,neglect every difference of form”
(543). Marx, being interested also in the practical
and cognitive (and hence ideological, pOlitical etc)
sides of capitalism, systematically considers forms
as well as contents throughout Capital. In chapters

This particular mystification illustrates a general point,
namely 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 c9mplex wages – money value – commodities etc) is presented as a simple relation or
is presented as a thing or the property of a thing. (21) Thus
here an apparent relation of exchange of equivalents is in
reality a compound of an exchange of equivalents plus an
extraction of surplus value; and this compound is itself
ultimately analysable into a complex set of relations between
relations. (22)
Also what appears as a fair and free exchange
(a contract) is in reality a relation of exploitation and

At this point we can begin (but only begin) to see the
connection between ideological categories and ideology in the
broader sense, that whole range of discourse and practises
structured by these categories. In this familiar case we can
see some of the connections between the wage-form and the
ideological concept of a fair wage. On the basis of complex
comparisons the workers, or the organisations which defend
their interests, negotiate wage agreements. The political
party which is thought of as that which represents the workers’

interests has as one of its slogans “a fair days wage for a
fair days work”, and has attempted to enact an “incomes policy”,
a machinery for defending both “employers” and “employed”
against “unfairness”, thus also defending “the national interest”.

In difficult cases (eg. “special cases”) a court of inquiry is
empowered to arbitrate and suggest ways of reaching a “just
settlement” which is then “freely” agreed to by all parties. (23)
Now all of this is necessary.

It is no good ever losing sight
of the fact that the workers’fight to defend themselves in
such ways is a necessary response to those forces in capitalist
society which systematically tend to sacrifice their interests.

But it is also true that this historically elaborated complex
of institutions and practises is a mystification because it
systematically excludes an understanding of real social

Now if it is necessary for the working class to conduct
an economic, trades-union struggle in self defence, and if the
spontaneous language in which this struggle is conducted is
structured by the wage-form and other “natural, self-understood”
bourgeois categories, and if these categories and their
embodiments in practice systematically exclude the categories
of real relations, then what is the point of saying that the
workers ought not to be “exclusively absorbed” in this
struggle’! (24)

economic, (25) for it is this that is involved in this passage
from Marx. It would be impossible to clarify the issues
involved here without a very long detour. I am only concerned
to make the point that Marx’s theory of ideological categories
does not contradict the demand for a three-fold struggle and
in fact may actually help to reveal its theoretical basis.

How are we to understand the double thesis of Lenin; “the
spontaneous struggle is dominated by bourgeois ideology” and
“the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism”?

(26) And how is it possible in practice to both conduct the
necessary defence of workers economic interests and simultaneously
struggle for an “economic reconstruction of society”?

problems have been the central theoretical and practical
problems for the workers’ movement from the debates on reformism
in the SPD to the current debates on the alleged reformism of
the continental communist parties.

There are two points which would need to be taken into
account in this debate which spring directly from Marx’s theory
of ideology. First, the present system “engenders the material
conditions and the social forms necessary for an economic
reconstruction of society”.

The system real-relations/
phenomenal-forms is a dynamic one and is not unchanging any
more than is the mode of production of which it is an aspect.

Secondly it dQes not follow from the fact that the categories
of bourgeois ideology exclude socialist categories that the
reverse of this is also true. There is a sense in which the
wage-form etc. are included in or assimilated into the categories
of Capital. I can only indicate here that Marx attempts an
explanation of this inclusion in the 1857 Introduction, in the
section “The Method of Political Economy”. (27)
The Interdependence of Categories
Notice secondly about the wage-form that it conceals not
only the real relation involved in the exchange transaction
but that it also conceals the real nature of the labour-fund,
or variable capital, from which the labourer is paid. This
particular mystification is analysed by Marx in the section
of Capital on “The Accumulation of Capital”.

“The simple fundamental form of the process of
accumulation is obscured by the incident of the
circulation which brings it about, and by the
splitting up of surplus-value. An exact analysis
of the process, therefore, demands that we should,
for a time, disregard all phenomena that hide the
play of its inner mechanism.” (565) (my emphases)

It is worth noting the particular forms of concealment involved
here because they illustrate another general point that I want
to make explicit, namely that the various appearance-forms are
not independent. They support each other. Each form can appear
as an element in the composition of any other form; and each
element is itself a form constructed out of other elements. It
is this that defines the categories as a structure of appearances.

The workers “ought not to be exclusively absorbed in
these unavoidable guerilla fights [against the tendency
to decrease real wages, to reduce the working day etcl
incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing
encroachments of capital or changes of the market.

They ought to understand that, with all the miseries
it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously
engenders the material conditions and the social forms
necessary for an economic reconstruction of society.

Instead of the conservative motto “A fair day’s wage
for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on
their banner the revolutionary watchword “Abolition
of the wages system!” (Marx’~ emphases)

In this case we have the following particular combinations.

How is it that the source of the wage is obscured? It is because
it is paid in the form of money. But
“this money is merely the transmuted form of the
product of his labour. While he is converting a
portion of the means of production into products,
a portion of his former product is being turned
into money. It is his labour of last week, or of
last year, that pays for his labour-power this week
or this year. The illusion begotten by the intervention of money vanishes immediately, if, instead
of taking a single capitalist and a single labourer,
we take the class of capitalists and the clas; of
labourers as a whole. The capitalist class is
constantly giving to the labouring class order-notes,

If this is not to be a purely idealist moral exhortation
there must be some sense in which it is possible to conduct
the struggle on the three fronts mentioned at the beginning
of this paper, the theoretical, the political and the

20 and 21 he considers some varieties of the wage-form
(Time-wages, Piece-wages), showing how each conceals
real relations and how “difference of form in the
payment of wages alters in no way their essential
nature” (552).


This is most clearly spelt out by Marx in relation to
the commodity-form; see chapter 1, sec.4 “The Fetishism
of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”.


cf. note 18


Some of the connections between ideological categories
and ideological moral principles are discussed by
Marcuse Reason and Revolution p 280-281 ego “If wages
••• express the value of labour, exploitation is at best
a subjective and personal judgment. If capital were
nothing other than an aggregate of wealth employed in
commodity production, then capital would appear to be
the cumulative result of productive skill and diligence.

If the creation of profits were the peculiar quality
of utilized capital, such profits might represent a
reward for the work of the entrepreneur.”


Marx Wages, Price and Profit in Selected Works
volume 1 p 446



See above, first section of this paper, and the quotes
from Engels given in Lenin What is to be Done? p 28
••• the struggle is being conducted pursuant to its
three sides – the theoretical, the political, and the
practical-economic (resistance to the capitalists) in harmony and in its interconnections, and in a
systematic way ••• ”


What is to be Done? p 42


cf. Introduction “The anatomy of the human being is
the key to the anatomy of the ape.” I think a clear
exposition of the theory in this Introduction would
be invaluable. It would show, for example, just how
different Marx’s theory of categories and of ideology
is from, for example, the relativist, idealist
Khunian theory of “paradigms” in which two competing
paradigms, in a revolutionary period, do exclude one
another. It would also show how Marx wou~ble
to give an account of “justification” in terms of
his theory of inclusion and hence escape the irrationalism of Kuhn and the retreat to methodology of Lakatos.

in the form of money, on a portion of the commodities
produced by the latter and appropriated by the former.

The labourers give these order-notes back just as
constantly to the capitalist class, and in this way
get their share of their own product.

The transaction

“Let us take a peasant liable to do compulsory
service for his lord. He works on his own land,
with his own means of production, for, say, 3 days
a week. The 3 other days he does forced work on the
lord’s domain. He constantly reproduces his own
labour-fund, which never, in his case, takes the
form of a money payment for h}s labour, advanced by
another person. But in return, his unpaid forced
labour for the lord, on its side, never acquires the
character of voluntary paid labour. If one fine
morning the lord appropriates to himself the land,
the cattle, the seed, in a word, the means of production
of this peasant, the latter will thenceforth be obliged
to sell his labour-power to the lord. He will, caeteris
paribus, labour 6 days a week as before, 3 for himself,
3 for his lord, who thenceforth becomes a wages-paying
capitalist ….• from that moment the labour-fund, which
the peasant himself continues as before to produce
and reproduce, takes the form of a capital advanced
in the form of wages by the lord” (568)

is veiled by the commodity-form of the p~oduct and the
money-form of the commodity.” (568) (my emphasis)
This example illustrates the point that whichever category one
starts with in the immediate problem (in this case Marx is
discussing the simple reproduction of capital) this inevitably
leads to an analysis in which all the central categories are
employed. Their systematic relations in reality are reproduced
in their systematic relations in thought. Thus the analysis of
the simple reproduction of capital involves the recognition that
the capitalist pays the labourer by returning to him only a
portion of that which is produced by him. This is obscured by
the intervention of money, which makes it seem as if the
capitalist has some other source of wealth than the expropriation
of unpaid labour. And this intervention of money is an aspect
of the commodity form of production. And the commodity form of
production is that form in which use-values are produced for
exchange, and are exchanged in relation to their values. Thus,
as Marx says, “the transaction is veiled by the commodity-form
of the product and the money-form of the commodity”. Thus the
real process is veiled not by some single element but by the
whole system of related elements. The bourgeois economist
cannot see through the concept of capital as source of the
labour-fund because the concept is not the name for a simple
empirical relation which can be examined independently. He is
caught up in a system of categories which generates “solutions”
to each particular analytic problem in a way like that in which
a particular calculation in arithmetic is generated by the
whole of arithmetic.

Money, Conwodities and Language
The conditions for the production of ideology are the
conditions for the production of a language, and can only be
understood by reference to the structure of forms and social
practices which systematically enter into the production of
particular concepts and propositions in that language. Ideology
is not a collection of discrete falsehoods but a matrix of
thought firmly grounded in the forms of our social life and
organised within a set of interdependent categories. We are
not aware of these systematically generative interconnections
because our awareness is organised through them.

Historical Specificity of Phenomenal Forms
Taking Marx’s analysis one step further will demonstrate
a third and extremely important point about the forms of
opacity, namely that they differ under different modes of
production, they are historically specific. Marx often reveals
a real, but hidden, relation in capitalism by reference to
other modes of production in which this particular relation or
its equivalent is transparent. Mystification can occur,
especially at the level of theory (eg.political economy) when
a correct analysis of some aspect of social relations goes
together with the assumption that that form of the relation
is a natural one and not a historically specific one. Consider
for example the fact mentioned above that the labour-fund
appears in the form of capital. This is specific to the
capitalist mode of production.

“Whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our
different products, by that very act, we also equate,
as human labour, the different kinds of labour
expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.

Value, therefore, does not stalk
about with a label describing what it is. It is

value, rather, that converts every product into a
social hieroglyphic.

Later on, we try to decipher
the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our
own social products. fie., the value-form]; for to
stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much
a social product as language” (74) (my emphases)

The puzzle of money is especially like the puzzle of
language. Each element, taken by itself (a word,a coin) seems
to have the power to function in an efficacious act (of
reference, of exchange) by virtue of having a particular
property (a meaning, a value). In each case the puzzle derives
from the contrast between the efficacy of the element on the
one hand, and the arbitrariness of its substance (sounds,
inscriptions, bits of metal or paper) on the other. How is it
possible to breath life into a sign? (30)
How is it possible
to conjure value into a coin? The fetishism of commodities
(of the value-system and of the money-form) has its equivalent
in the fetishism of names (of the concept-system and the

That is why it is not just a joke to say
that just as money is the universal medium of exchange of labourpower and commodities so logic is the universal medium of exchange of concepts and propositions.

And just as political
economy cannot take the money-form for granted but must explain
it, similarly philosophy cannot take the logic for granted but
must explain it.

“The bourgeois economist whose narrow mind .is
unable to separate the form of appearance from
the thing that appears, shuts his eyes to the fact
that it is but here and there on the face of the
earth, that even now-a-days the labour-fund crops
up in the form of capital” (569)

But notice that this “shutting of the eyes” is not simply a
wilful refusal to see a fact. The secret of the labour-fund,
namely that it is accumulated surplus-value, carlTIot be thought
within the categories of bourgeois political economy. (28)
The “narrow mind” of the bourgeois economist is thus not
simply the narrow mind of the bigot or the fool but is, as
Marx says, the narrowness of the mind “which is unable to
separate the form of appearance from the thing that appears”.

In order to demonstrate the correctness of his own
analysis Marx has simply to refer to a historical example the
relation of which to its equivalent under capitalism is made
clear by Marx’s categories; ie., it is not made clear by
simply referring to the facts in an empiricist sense. (29)


The arbitrariness of the money-substance (like that of the
sign-substance in linguistics) ie., the fact that there is no
necessary or natural connection between the physical properties
and the monetary properties of a coin, has given rise to the
mistaken notion that money is a mere symbol.

cL Engels “Preface to the Second Volume of Capital”
(also in Selected Works volume 1 p470ff, where Engels,
using an interesting parallel between Marx’s theoretical
achievement and that of Lavoisier in chemistry, describes
how economists had “remained in thrall to the economic
categories as they had found them” thus making it
impossible for them to understand surplus-value. “Then
Marx came forward. And he did so in direct opposition
to all his predecessors. Where they had seen a
solution, he saw only a problem.” I think the philosophy
of science has a lot to learn from such passages.

Since this is such a frequent and powerful aspect of
Marx’s analyses, and since I’ve dealt with it so
briefly, it may be worth referring to perhaps the most
extraordinary occurances of it – in the chapter on
The Fetishism of Commodities Marx goes through a series
of five distinct historical variations in the relation
between the labour of an individual producer and the
aggregate if social production, to demonstrate the
peculiarities of commodity-production (Capital volume
1, pp7S-79). Or cf. ppS39-S42 on slavery (” •••• in the
system of slavery, where frankly, and openly, without
any circumlocution, labour-power itself is sol~

“In this sense every commodity is a symbol, since,
in so far as it is value, it is only the material
envelope of the human labour spent upon it. But if
it be declared that the social characters assumed by
objects, or the material forms assumed by the social
qualities of labour under the reg.i.’T1e of a definite
mode of production, are mere symbols, it is in the
same breath also declared that these characteristics
are arbitrary fictions sanctioned by the so-called
universal consent of mankind. This suited the mode
of explanation in favour during the 18th century.

Unable to account for the origin of the puzzling
forms assumed by social relations between man and
man, people sought to denude them of their strange
appearance by ascribing to them a conventional
origin.” (91)



cf. Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para.

432 “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it
life? – In use i~is allve. Is life breathed into it
there? – or is the use Its life?”

The parallels between philosophical theories of meaning and
economic theories of value should be no surprise because the
structural feature that the phenomena have in common is the
dislocation between the invisibility of the social life which
makes them possible and the visibility of the individual acts
in which they enter into social practice.

be remembered that this is presented as merely a helpful
graphical device and should not be taken too seriously
especially in as much as it can give no account of the
relations within the totality.

I’ll recapitulate some of the points that I’ve been
making by returning to the camera obscura metaphor. The
relation between reality and the representation of reality
in men’s brains is not a relation involving three independent
entities (two entities and a mediating entity between them)
as is suggested by the camera obscura and the mirror image
metaphors. Marx’s metaphor of “inversion” is notoriously
difficult to understand and has suggested many different
interpretations. The metaphor continues to occur throughout
his later works. It is worth remembering that this very same
metaphor of inversion, plus that of reflection, mixed with that
of the kernel and its shell, all occur together in the very
famous passage in the Afterword to the 2nd German Edition of
Capital in which Marx struggled to explain the difference
between Hegel’s dialectical method and his own. (31)
dialectic was the mystified form of the dialectic and was
an aspect of the famous “German Ideology”. Marx’s discussion
of it is both an attempt to identify his own dialectical method
and an attempt to explain the relation between a mystified form
of thought and its nondistorted equivalent. But the multitude
of interpretations of this passage, and its obvious inadequacy
as a theoretical statement (how does one conceive of turning
something “right side up again” in order to discover “the
rational kernal within the mystical shell If?) has led to an
ambitious attempt by Louis Althusser to analyse the specific
problem that Marx was struggling with and which led him back
again and again to this metaphor. (32) Althusser’s .analysis
focuses particularly on the problem of ~Iarx’ s dialectical
method. I think that since the metaphors in question are
invoked bv Marx most often in relation to the general problem
of mystification (and not only mystification in its specifically
Hegelian form) it would be worth trying to think beyond them
here also.

The difference between Narxian categories and the
ideological categories of, for example, political economy, is
that where the latter designate things and their properties
the former designate internal relations and their transformations; and where the latter designate relations between things
the former designate relations between relations. (33) This is
the most general form of what ~Iarx calls “fetishism”. For
“whence arose the illusions of the monetary system?

To it gold and silver, when serving as money, did
not represent a social relation between producers,
but mere natural obiects with strange social properties.

And modern economy,~ which looks down with such disdain
on the monetary system, does not its superstition
come out as clear as noonday, whenever it treats of
capital? How long is it since economy discarded the
physiocratic illusion, that rents grow out of the soil
and not out of society?” (82)

Capital p19 “My dialectic method is not only different
from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel,
the life-process of the human brain, ie., the process
of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea”, he
even transforms into an independent subject, is the
demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is
only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea”.

With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else
than the material world reflected by the human mind,
and translated into forms of thought…. …..

mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands,
by no means prevents him from being the first to
present its general form of working in a comprehensive
and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its

It must be turned right side up again, if you
would discover the rational kernal within the mystical
shell. ”
(my emphases)


L. Althusser For Marx (AlIen Lane the Penguin Press
1969) especially part 3 “Contradiction and Overdetermination”.


A brave effort to explain the peculiarities of a
“philosophy of internal relations” and the consequent
difficulties in the interpretation of Marx is made by
Bertell OIlman Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in
Capitalist Society (Cambridge University Press 1971).



real reI a tions

.§ phenomenal





















§ categories




§ (morality, ..,
~ philosophy, g
r:: reI igion, -g
~ law)


Labour of production, relations
of production

(value adhering
to an object,
value relations)
money-form etc.


buying and

The properties of this system are complex. I can only
make a few comments here by way of highlighting some of its
differences from the camera obscura model. I have said that
this model differs from the earlier one both in the nature of
its components (A,B,C etc) and in the relations between them.

In both these respects we can only understand the model by
reference to some concept of a structured totality. As
Balibar points out (34) the notion of the structural complexity
of a totality was introduced by Althusser in order to clarify
the relations within the totality base-superstructure ie., the
social structure as a whole, as an articulation of several
relatively autonomous levels. But it is also true that each
of these “levels” is itself a structured totality. I have
given some indication of this above in discussing the interdependence of ideological categories, and below I note
briefly a similar feature in relation to the level D,
discourse and practice. It is equally true that “real
relation” names (eg. social-labour, capital, interest,
surplus-value, property) are not the names of things, nor
even of relations between things, but of structured functions.

In his attempt to grasp this OIlman quotes Marx on ‘fixed
capi tal’ (3S)
“It is not a question of a definition which things
must be made to fit.

We are dealing here with definite
functions which must be expressed in definite categories”

Similarly I think the difference between Marx’s theory of
ideology and the ideology of ideology is that whereas the
latter thinks of it in terms of two elements and a relation
between them (or one element, reality, and its property of
creating another element, an idea) Marx’s theory is dialectical.

It is a theory of a totality. Both the nature of the components
and that of the relations between them are thus drastically
different. It can be represented as below although it should




Ideology and Dialectic

Thus, relations within A,B etc., are not easy to describe.

But it is clear that the relations within A are not the same
as those within C (the relation between labour and value for
example) and that the inversion metaphor, with its preservation of internal relations in the transformation from real to
ideological categories, is therefore incorrect. As for the
relations between A,B etc., it is again clear that, however
difficult to describe they may be, certain indications of
difference from the earlier model can be made. The problem
would be to spell out the properties of the new model in such
a way as to preserve certain of Marx’s central tenets; in
particular the interpretation would have to be compatible
with some notion of historical materialism and with the
doctrine of the determination in the last instance by the
“economic”. However this is done at least it is clear that,
unlike the earlier model, this later one shows that each of
the elements A,B, etc., is a necessary condition for each of
the others. In particular D is necessary for A (wh.ich removes
the most blatant problem of the “phantom” metaphor, its
suggestion that social reality is independent of ideas). The
way in which D relates to A is suggestively analysed by
Althusser in his theory that ideology, as “materialised” in
the Ideological State Apparatuses, secures the reproduction
of the relations of production. (36)
Discourse. Practice and Institutions
What is the relation between C and Die., between
ideological categories and ideological discourse and practices?



Etienne Balibar “The Basic Concepts of Historical
Materialism” in Reading Capital by L. Althusser and
E. Balibar (New Left Books 1970) p2lS


B. OIlman Alienation p23. The quote is from Capital
volume 2 p226. This conception of categories and its
elaboration in relation to the basic categories of
historical materialism is probably most usefully
discussed in Balibar op.cit.


L. Al thusser “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays (New Left Books
1971) .

The massive, powerful presence of mystification secreted by in the course of his social production and consumption,
in its extremely diverse visual, linguistic and institutional
forms, is ultimately constructed upon (determined in the penultimate instance by?) the spontaneous categories of the forms
of representation of social life. But clearly many mediations
and many local specificities would have to be ta~en into
account in any convincingly detailed analysis of some of the
more elaborate or bizzarre forms of ideological discourse
(religions, moralities, philosophical systems etc). Also we
would have to know how to distinguish in any particular case
between superficial, apparent, manifest semantic content, and
deeper, more revealing, latent, formative principles of
discourse. At the surface level ideology is infinitely
flexible and a determined ideologist can plunder even the
least likely sources for sentences, images, phrases, words,
with which to forge effective weapons (think of Watney’s
beer and the “Red Revolution”; or of Nixon at a banquet in
Pekin invoking the image of the Long March). Such curiousities
remind us that meaning is not a matter of words, images,
phrases etc taken in isolation, but of an order of discourse
and practices within which particular words, phrases, or
images can take on a variety of meanings. It should also
remind us of the problem that discourse is overdetermined,
so that there may well be levels of relative coherence and
intelligibility autonomous from that of any particular set
of generative categories.

Thus the theory of ideology
outlined here is clearly very incomplete in as much as it
would have to be expanded to include a theory of mediations
and of overdetermination to make of it a useful tool of
analysis for cases which are less directly grounded in the
particular categories discussed in Capital than are those
related to the wage-form discussed above.

might jeopardize gains accumulated at such cost. Each
assertion of working-class influence within the
bourgeois-democratic state machinery, simultaneously
involved them as partners (even i f antagonistic partners)
in the rur~ing of the machine ••••• reformist pressures
from secure organisational bases, bring evident returns
••••• British reformism is strong because, within very
serious limits, it has worked.”

It would not be possible to account further for the
nature of the relation between the subject and the reality
that he describes in ideological discourse without entering
further into the theory of language and the theory of
consciousness. But it should be clear that from Marx’s
thesis some negative points about this relation do emerge,
points which are criticisms of other possible theories of
ideology. It is not necessary to postulate that any basic
role in the generation of ideological discourse is played
by subjective and individual agencies such as the desire to
deceive, or the deliberate intention to manipulate the
beliefs of others in such a way as to protect one’s own
interests. Nor is it necessary to postulate that ideology
need be believed only by the aid of some process of selfdeception or refusal or bad-fajth.

Such existentialist
concepts are invoked in order to explain how it can come
about that a person believes things which are manifest
contradictory, or believes things which he is in a good
position to know are false. But ~larx’s theory postulates
that ideology arises from the fact that the situation might
be such as to provide a person with reasons for thinking in
terms of categories which necessarily generate falsehood and

Secondly we must remember that ideology is present in
history not as disembodied thought, nor merely in the form of
the thought, speech and behaviour of individuals, but in
social organisations of various kinds. (cf. Althusser’s
concept of Ideological State Apparatus mentioned above).

Since I have been mainly concerned with the cognitive basis
of ideology I have no doubt been using rather abstract
concepts which may have suggested that phenomenal forms and
their corresponding ideological categories exist only as
aspects of the cognitive acts of individuals, for example
the experience of the individual worker of his wagetransactions and of his production and consumption of
commodities. But of course it is not this that is involved
at all. The worker’s experience is mediated not only by
language and culture but also by social institutions. The
worker not only reads newspapers and watches television, but
is also a member of a family, has been to school, belongs to
a Union, has perhaps been in the army,_ and in a football club,
is perhaps a member of a church. The conditions for the
production of mystification are not abstract but are material
and historical.

Marx’s theory does not assert a merely causal relation
between socio-economic reality and ideology. This is the
tro~ble with some of his early formulae, such as the famous
“religion is the opium of the people”, in as much as they can
be interpreted as meaning that ideology functions as a sort
of drug which, acting on a person’s cognitive and perceptual
equipment would somehow causally prevent him from seeing what
was there to be seen, This is quite at variance with the
Capital theory which asserts that the basis of ideology is
precisely in its apparent justification by the perceived forms
of empirical social reality. So, we must reject the view
that ideology has its basis in some sort of defective
perception of clearly perceptible facts. For Marx understanding
comes not from making good the oversights of others, nor from
merely noticing what they had not noticed, but from discovering
that which is concealed by the apparent facts, or more
accurately by the form of the facts that are directly
perceptible in social life. It is the forms of social relations
with which we are apparently directly acquainted in experience
(value, wages, money, commodities etc) that are deceptive.

Scientific advance is not so much a matter of discovery as
of penetration. And this is achieved by systematic conceptual
innovation ie., by theory, which allows us to grasp the hidden
coherence of the object.

Keeping this in mind one can get a firmer grip on the
problem of the domination of the workers’ movement by
bourgeois ideology that has been a continuing theme of this
paper. Bourgeois ideology dominates because, within serious
limits, it works, both cognitively and in practice. It
provides intelligibility and is embodied in effective working
class organisations.

This is the point made by E.P.Thompson
in his argument against some of the abstractions of Perry
Anderson’s analysis of the “peculiarities of the English”.

The main peculiarity diagnosed by Engels was the
dominance of unionism over politics, “the indifference to
all theory which is one of the main reasons why the English
working class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of
the splendid organisation of the individual unions.” (38)
Thompson’s explanation of this absence of a socialist
political and theoretical counterbalance to the spontaneously
bourgeois union movement in England consists in locating
this absence in the context of the history of the labour
movement’s success. (39)
” .••. the workers, having failed to overthrow
capitalist society, proceeded to warren it from
end to end.

This “caesura” [between the defeat
of Chartism and the appearance of strong unions
and eventually the LaboUr Party] is exactly the
period in which the characteristic class institutions
of the Labour Movement were built up – trade unions,
trades councils, T.U.C., co-ops, and the rest which have endured to this day.

It was part of
the logic of this new direction that each advance
within the framework of capitalism simultaneously
involved the working class far more deeply in the
status quo.

As they improved their position by
organisation within the workshop, so they became
more reluctant to engage in quixotic outbreaks which


E.P. Thompson “The Peculiarities of the English” in
Socialist Register 1965. Perry Anderson “Origins of the
Present Crisis” in New Left Review 23.


quoted in Lenin What is to be Done? p 27


E.P. Thompson art. cit. p343.


I am not, of course, denying the reality of selfdeception. Nor am I denying that there have been and are
many who believe~what they believe about social relations
because they are aware of the connection between such beliefs
and the advancement of their own interests. That is to say
that in some way or other beliefs which they regard as justified are fortified or are denied criticism because it is in
the interests of that person or group of persons that such
beliefs be held. Nor am I denying the obvious truth that
there are many who attempt to manipulate others into believing
things which they know to be false or into thinking in ways
that they know to be mystifying or which simply blunt people’s
critical faculties in such a way as indirectly to prevent them
from arriving at the truth. I have no doubt that such methods
of attempted manipulation of people’s beliefs are very common,
that for example the present President of the United States
and many members of his administration are liars, that they
and many others not only lie but use their enormous power and
wealth to make as sure as possible that their lies fill the
media and penetrate into every corner of the language and of
people’s minds. But I think Marx’s theory is an attempt to
account for much more puzzling phenomena than this. Namely
that at least in certain historical conditions ideological
forms of thought are the “natural self-understood modes of

The bourgeois ideology that has dominated not
only the thought of the bourgeoisie but also the theory and
practice for example of the English labour movement for over
a century has clearly not had its origins in the methods or
instruments that are now available to and used by the cynical
elite of crisis-torn America. Such methods have not normally
been necessary. If we have all been brain-washed then it is
by the very forms of social reality itself. It is they,
Marx says, that are impressed on our brains. Of course this
is not an unchanging or unchangable state of affairs. But
just what Marx’s theory of the conditions for the production
of mystification can teach us about the conditions for the
production of knowledge, and for the production of a nonmystifying social reality are not questions which I have
attempted to answer in this paper.

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