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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 30, New Delhi, July 10, 2021

Rethinking Ideology | Murzban Jal

Friday 9 July 2021

by Murzban Jal*

I refuse to engage in any philosophical discussion. 
— V.I. Lenin, ‘To Maxim Gorky’, 1908.

The Mouse Trap and the Iron Cage of Capitalism

One of the most important questions in Marxism is the question on the theoretical nature of Marx’s discipline and what place “ideology” would have in it. By and large, the political left (which is largely the Stalinist and Maoist left and their illegitimate children) which had grown more from the politics of the Second International and then from smatterings learnt from the Soviet Union, took ideology in a value-free manner, where by ideology was meant simply political worldview. From such a conclusion it was said that one has liberal ideology, socialist, Marxist, fascist, etc. All these are “ideologies”. That such a view is completely and absolutely different from what Marx and Engels conceptualized must be noted.

 The fact that Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology conceptualized something quite different from this traditional and uncritical understanding of ideology must be noted. While the importance of this text cannot be underestimated, it must also be said that recent works of Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank like their A Political History of the Editions of Marx and Engel’s ‘‘German Ideology Manuscripts’’ [1] classify this text as an “intermediary step toward later publications (The Poverty of Philosophy and The Communist Manifesto)”. [2] In such a rendering The German Ideology is said to exist merely a bridge-text, a non-existence text, even as a phantom text, a text that was written merely for self-clarification. [3] The fact that Marx writes in this 1859 Preface about “our conception” that is opposed to the “ideological one” remains almost unnoticed. [4] Marx therefore created a theoretical problematic that was opposed to the ideological problematic.

For Marx (and Engels) The German Ideology is a critique of ideology noted as mere metaphysical and idealist garble. This is decoded in the radical critique of the philosophy of the Young Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner, who were not able to get out from the realm of “pure philosophy” and “pure thoughts” and thus unable to reach out to the real world. The fact that there is a severe ontological and epistemological break between ideology and the real world must be mentioned. Ideology thus is said to totally disregard the real basis of history [5] and which after this disregarding-alienation then creates “false consciousness” [6], consciousness which operates in “inverted form” where everything goes “topsy-turvy” and “upside down”. [7]

But if this indeed the case, if ideology is inherently not merely false, but pure lies, and if the real ideologist is Don Quixote as The German Ideology notes, then why did Marxism post-Marx and Engels take this bizarre “ideological turn”? Just imagine, thus, comrades celebrating the discipline of “ideology” when they do not realize that they are nothing but Don Quixotes chasing windmills. But not only have they been reified into the character of the Don, they have also become mice caught in the mouse trap. After all, ideology, as Frederic Jameson notes, is for Marxism a “mouse trap”. [8] It is important to understand how the discipline of ideology functions like a mouse trap in which it has converted human beings into characters like Don Quixote chasing windmills accompanied by his faithful companion Sancho Panza. The good Don and the faithful Sancho are trapped in their fantasies not knowing that these fantasies are mouse traps where instead of cheese they will get eternal imprisonment, not to forget death. While capitalist society with its increasing rationalization processes creates what Max Weber calls an “iron cage” (stahlhartes Gehäuse) or “steel-hard casing” to render the literal meaning, it creates ideology which converts humanity into Dons and Sanchos thus trapping them in the mouse trap of fantasies, illusions and delusions, not to forget Disney Lands, Gulags and Auschwitzs.

And it is in this Disneyland of ideology wherein “childlike fancies” (kindlichen Phantasien) [9] govern the world where the ideologist is found living in “fantastic isolation” (phantastischen Abgeschlossenheit) [10] where he/she is spellbound by “fantasies” (Phantasien) [11]. And in this world of the phantasmagoria there is “no mention” of the real world and real facts. [12] What we get is “a narrative based not on research but on arbitrary constrictions and literary gossip. [13]

In our reflections on ideology we thus raise the question: “Why when Marx, who was profusely against the discipline of ideology, was ideology able to return not merely as a discipline but as a necessary system in 20th century Marxism?” In order to understand this question let us go to Antonio Gramsci from whom “the vulgar contention is that science must absolutely mean “system”, and consequently systems of all sorts are built up which have only the mechanical exteriority of a system and not its necessary inherent coherence”. [14]

Consequently to understand how ideology becomes a system one moves to elaborate the idea of “mechanical exteriority of a system” with Gramsci’s idea of “useless duplicate” [15] that serves only as “generalities” wearing “masks”. [16] That Gramsci’s idea of “useless duplicate” also corresponds to the idea of “duplication” that Marx outlines in his Theses on Feuerbach must be stated where the logic of “self-alienation” is made operational leading to the “duplication of the world” into an “imaginary world and a real one”. [17] One needs now to study how this type of duplication that creates an imaginary world is systematized in the world of modern capitalism now governed by and large by a post-religious secular logic called “ideology”. Capitalism needed to create a system. And with the fading of the hegemony of religion it needed a post-religious religion. That this systematization necessarily becomes conservative and mystical one will see from the following analysis.

It was Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy who had said that Hegel’s philosophy involved a form of duality, the duality between the “method” and the “system”, the “revolutionary side” and the “conservatory side”. [18] The “system” was transformed into “doctrine” which led to “hard mental plugging” and “orthodox pietism”. [19] Real thinking would be impossible, forget revolution. The tragedy is that Engels’ observations on the reactionary character of system building would come to haunt Marxism. Engels argued for the dialectical method which celebrates the flush of history and rejoices in the millions of revolutions that would unfold. The system would destroy it. It came in the form of “ideology”, at least institutionalized in Stalinist Soviet Union. Little did history know that this “ideology” would actually be theology and mythology in the modern age.

It is in this sense that one says that it may seem strange that though Marx and Engels had chided the entire discourse of ideology as a form of false consciousness in their celebrated magnum opus The German Ideology, this very discourse of ideology for some reason or the other crept into Marxism. How could this be possible? How could ideology, stated as a system of falsity—“false consciousness”—or best an idealist intervention into the narrative of politics, be allowed to enter Marxism which is in itself anti-idealist?

Now it must be stated that this question of ideology entering Marxism creating a form of “ideological Marxism” is not a mere scholastic question, but is one of the most burning questions in the history of Marxist struggles. After all, turning Marxism into ideology was turning Marxism into theology and mythology. Stalin and Stalinism would only be waiting in the wings of history to destroy all revolutions. And so would Nazism.

Stalinism and all the counterrevolutions did this with the help of ideology (Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus) and the state (the Repressive State Apparatus). The state in its most awful and ugly form knew that it needed to be presented to the world public in decent and democratic form. It thus presented itself as a dandy gentleman well informed with the latest in European mannerism. Our “Monsieur” thus appeared. He even appeared as “Dr Jekyl”. “Mr. Hyde” was thus concealed.

But then this dandy Monsieur had to speak to the public. He needed a “partner” just as Adam needed a partner when he asked Lord God for Eve. This partner would now propagate the ideas and ideals of the state. Mr. Hyde would mumble in the ears of the now acquired “partner”. The “partner” would be ideology—Madame Ideology to be precise. To stop giving them respectability (since we are well versed with socialist realism) we must become realists. Let us thus call a spade a spade. Let us call the state a scam and ideology a sham. But then since we also respect European mannerism let us call them “Monsieur Sham and Madame Scam”.

In the 20th century both Monsieur Capital and Madame Rent along with Monsieur Sham (state) and Madame Scam (ideology) created havoc—Nazism would have been inconceivable without this rather strange couple just as modern imperialism in its liberal, authoritarian and fascist forms would be inconceivable without them.

Ideology and Madness

The clue to how Monsieur Capital became insane—psychotic to be precise—is found in the analysis of the metamorphosis of commodities where the commodity is sees losing its bodily form and attaining a psychotic phantasmagorical form. Turn to the first pages of the first volume of Capital and one sees how the commodity literally does a strip tease type of occult dance where “existence as a material thing is put out of sight” [20] and where “all sensuous conditions are put out of sight” (Alle seine sinnlichen Beschaffenheiten sind ausgelöscht) [21]. What this occult dance creates is a ghost [22] where “productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race”. [23]

But if it is Monsieur Capital and Madam Rent, along with Monsieur State and Madam Ideology as the crazy couple that ran amok condemning all revolutionary movements and thoughts, there was something more which ideology would spill into, something that thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Wilhelm Reich had understood—ideology not only as complete and absolute control of the masses, but as complete madness. From this site of understanding the state as the engine of class despotism and ideology as false consciousness, we move into the realm of not merely madness, but madness as “late neurosis-psychosis”. In fact what we say is that we reside in the age of late neurosis-psychosis. The problem now is that neurosis-psychosis resides in all of us.

What has happened in the era of late imperialism in permanent crisis is that a new mental disease called “neurosis-psychosis” has been created thus compelling us to invent this term new term “neurosis-psychosis” where neurosis and psychosis have synthesized. It is important to note here that the problems of neurosis and psychosis were treated separately by Freud as distinct mental problems.

To conclude it is important to note that the idea of “late neurosis-psychosis” emerges from the study of the havoc that capitalism in the 21st century is creating and how the New Technology of Mass Media is able to reach to not only the masses, but to the minds (in fact to the deep unconscious) of the masses. While one notes the wrath unleashed by capitalism on the human mind, one must also note that theoretically this concept “neurosis-psychosis” emerges from Freud’s essays ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’ and ‘Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis’ [24], while the idea of the “age of late neurosis-psychosis” is taken from Lenin’s study of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism” [25] and from Ernst Mandel’s study of “late capitalism” [26]. So when we are theorizing on ideology in the imperialist age of late capitalism we are also talking of the era of madness in the form of “late neurosis-psychosis”. The images of not only Monsieur Capital sodomizing Madame Earth, but also the Stalinist counterrevolution along with Auschwitz and Guantanamo Bay will haunt all understandings of ideology.

What late imperialism in permanent crisis does is that it not only manipulates the “repressed unconscious”, but creates an alternative consciousness as “reified consciousness”. What we imagine as “consciousness” is actually repressed and reified consciousness, for what one represses (as Freud put it) or what one lacks (as Ludwig Feuerbach had suggested) is projected onto the duplicate far off netherworld, the netherworld of ideology. Ideology thus became the organizing structure of this “repression” cum “lack”.

Yes, there is repression and reification. But then the problem is that this terrible repression and reification instead of causing pain is causing joy, the joy of the terrible pains and sufferings of capitalism appearing in sublime form. Ideology thus takes necessarily a sublime character however awful and psychotic it may be. It is thus that we need to talk of the sublime character of ideology that Slavoj Žižek highlights [27], a sublimity that becomes not merely a lost path, but in fact the “falsest of false paths” (Holzweg der Holzwege) [28].

So how does one move away from these false paths? In contrast to the realm of the “ideological’ (and the fixation with the repressed unconscious)—one will have encounter and befriend this unconscious. Then only will we be able to exorcise the specters haunting our minds thus leaving us with the ability to humanize the whole world. In this sense, any discussion on ideology will have to talk of the deep unconscious. In this moving into the structure of the deep unconscious, one thus goes into the deep structures of human alienation and the political economy of capitalism wherein humanity is seen totally loosing itself. It is here that this lost person says: “We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it”. (Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es) [29].

It is this state of unawareness that is killing us. Ideology is the perfection of this state of unawareness. We are being sodomized. We are not aware of it. And we continue to be sodomized. All hitherto existing history is not only the history of class struggle. It is also the history of sodomy.

(Author: Prof. Murzban Jal is Director, Centre for Educational Studies, Indian Institute of Education, 128/2, J.P. Naik Path, Kothrud, Pune- 411038, Maharashtra)


[1See Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank especially their A Political History of the Editions of Marx and Engel’s ‘‘German Ideology Manuscripts’’ (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

[2See Warren Goldstein, ‘Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank, A Political History of the Editions of Marx and Engels’ ‘‘German Ideology Manuscripts.’’ New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, hbk, ISBN 978-1-137-47115-4, pp 214’ in Critical Review of Religion, 4(2), 2016.

[3See Karl Marx, ‘Preface’, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1978), p. 22 where Marx says that “we abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more willingly since we had achieved our main purpose—self-clarification”.

[4Ibid.

[5Ibid., p. 62.

[6Frederick Engels, ‘To F. Mehring in Berlin’, London, July 14, 1893, in Marx Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 690.

[7Frederick Engels, ‘To C. Schmidt in Berlin’, London, October 27, 1890, in Marx Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 687.

[8Frederic Jameson, The Valiances of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009), p. 315.

[9Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, The German Ideology, p. 29; Karl Marx, ‘Die deutsche Ideologie’, in Die Frühschriften, p. 342.

[10Ibid., p. 43; Ibid., p. 350.

[11Ibid., p. 65; Ibid., p. 372.

[12Ibid., p. 65.

[13Ibid.

[14Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1987), p. 434.

[15Ibid., p. 224

[16Ibid., p. 225.

[17See Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 29.

[18Frederick Engels, ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the Classical German Philosophy’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), pp. 587, 589, 590-1

[19Ibid., p. 591.

[20Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Edward Aveling and Samuel Moore (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 45.

[21Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1993) p. 52.

[22Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 46; Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band, p. 52

[23Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 77.

[24Sigmund Freud, ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’ and ‘The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis’, in The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 10. On Psychopathology (London: Penguin Books, 1993).

[25V.I. Lenin, ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, in Lenin. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977)

[26Ernst Mandel, Late Capitalism, trans. Joris De Bras (London: Verso, 1980).

[27Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Character of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989).

[28V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empiro-criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1967), p. 330.

[29Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 78-9; Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band, p. 88. See also Slavoj Žižek, op. cit., p. 29.

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