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Marx's Critique of Ideology < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Marx's Critique of Ideology
Introduction to Essays in Critical Theory:
Toward a Marxist Criticism of Liberal Ideology

by Richard Lichtman


By Bertell Ollman

What is ideology? What are its major forms? How does it work, and what role does it play in our society? What is its relations with class interests? Who does it help/harm most? What contradictions does it contain? To what degree is it a reflection of life in an exploitative society (and of what parts more than others), and to what degree is it produced and fostered by the ruling class? At what stages in the class struggle do the different forms of ideology arise? What is ideology's relation to a correct understanding of social life? How can ideology be tempered, pierced, overcome? There are no more important questions in the whole of political philosophy, and Richard Lichtman's new book is one of the most successful efforts ever undertaken to provide us with the answers.

How we understand our lives, the forms and frameworks in which we make and dispense sense of our experience, is integral to how we live them. Our consciousness enters into everything we do, giving it its shape, character, meaning and purpose. In capitalism, the greater part of this consciousness has been colonized by a set of ideas, concepts and frameworks for thinking that Marxists call "bourgeois ideology," such that nothing in capitalism happens as it does without being formulated inside the categories of this ideology.

Capitalism, it needs to be recalled, is a mode of production where wealth takes the form of commodities, goods produced for the market and exchanged for money; where the instruments of production are capital, machines and factories owned by capitalists who use them not only to produce goods but profit, or rather goods only in so far as they bring profit; and where workers are forced to sell their labor power for a wage and become wage workers. For it to function, this mode of production requires a range of conditions, institutions and behavior in every area of social life that facilitates, stabilizes and promotes these processes. Similarly, these developments in the economy and throughout the rest of society give rise to and require a set of beliefs and a way of thinking that make the production of commodities, the accumulation of capital, and the sale of labor power both possible and necessary.

For example, people cannot give up what they produce unless they consider that its relation to them is contingent, that it is not an essential part of their identity. However, seeing their product acquire forms independent of them and taking on roles over which they have no control reproduces in them just this belief. Likewise, people would not offer to buy the products of human labor with money unless they saw at least a formal equality between all such goods; but it is the fact that these goods do exchange for money that reproduces in them the idea that there is such a formal equality. Also, capital could not produce a profit unless the people it employed accepted that capital has a right to a profit, but it is just its extraction of a profit, in the form of surplus value, that gives rise to such a belief. And there are many other examples. So much applies throughout the entire capitalist era.

But capitalism has also changed in a number of important respects, and nowhere is this more evident than in the more direct role played by the state in the economy. Those whose job it was to make and administer the laws, to adjudicate disputes between citizens, and to repress unwelcome dissent have ever served the interests of the ruling economic class, the most important of which involves the protection and reproduction of the conditions of capital accumulation. Yet, with notable exceptions, it was only with the Great Depression of the 1930s that the state became a major player in the capitalist market, organizing society's response to the wild fluctuations of the latter in ways that left no doubt as to its class bias. The system's internal contradictions had reached a point where the state was forced to engage in an ever increasing amount of "capitalist planning," and the conservative reaction of the 1980s has done nothing to interfere with this fundamental trend. However, with this new development, the state's claim to neutrality, its insistence that governmental institutions belong to and represent everyone equally, stood revealed for the sham it always was. Consequently, the role of ideology, always crucial in disguising the reality of class exploitation and its accompanying struggles, became more essential than ever. When there is more to hide, there is a need for bigger and more effective masks, for louder noises off-stage to distract attention, and for greater efforts to undermine whomever dares raise his/her voice to criticize or offer alternatives.

The importance Marx attached to the criticism of bourgeois ideology is evident in his description of Capital as a "critique of economic categories, or if you like, the system of bourgeois economics exposed in a critical manner."1 Marx was willing to devote approximately half of his major work to how the political economists and others of his day understood and misunderstood capitalism, because how they thought—as we saw—was an integral part of how capitalism worked, and critically analyzing their thoughts offered a means of unraveling the complexity of the system. Thus, ideology critique is always called for, but modern capitalism's greater dependence on ideological rationalizations and obfuscation to defuse criticisms of its latest refinements has raised this approach to a top priority.

Unfortunately, until recently, it was also countries like the United States, in which the most sophisticated forms of ideology were at work, that had the least developed Marxist critical tradition. Unopposed, even in academic circles, there were virtually no limits to the wild tales that the system's ideologues were able to spin on behalf of their clients. With the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements, the rapid growth of university education and teaching jobs, the declining effectiveness of the worst forms of McCarthyism, and especially the developments in capitalism itself, all this began to change. Today, it is clear that a Marxism adequate to the comprehension of its subject matter, one that has little in common with the formula ridden variety favored in the Soviet Union, has finally taken roots on this side of the Atlantic. The United States can now boast of a creative Marxism worthy of the complexities of the system that needs to be deciphered. In this still advancing trend, Richard Lichtman's work, with its strong emphasis on ideology critique, occupies a singular place.

Until now, Lichtman has probably been best known for his book, The Production of Desire, which took the three quarters of a century old discussion of how to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable philosophies of Marx and Freud to new heights, and which has become something of a classic to followers of both men. Coming more than a decade latter, the present volume, which brings together essays on different aspects of bourgeois ideology and related themes, is certain to establish Lichtman as among the most learned and creative Marxists philosophers now writing. For, unlike too many commentators who adopt a Marxist framework, Lichtman never fails to advance his arguments well beyond the analysis found in Marx's own works and to apply them with devastating effect to the current popular manifestations of bourgeois ideology. What also sets Lichtman apart from his few peers at this high plateau of achievement is his ability to explain even the most difficult Marxist theories with truly amazing lucidity. While a growing number of Marx's followers, including the self-styled school of Analytical Marxists, seem ready to sacrifice much of the profundity and subtlety of Marx's analysis in order to present what's left with machine tool precision, Lichtman has shown that it is possible to have both. Throughout, his treatment of Marx's ideas retain all the dialectical nuances of the original while serving as a model of clarity, of simple, unambiguous writing that every interested party can understand.

Lichtman concerns himself, too, with only the biggest questions. Do you wish to understand the market, and its reliance on certain ideas to work, then you can do no better than read Lichtman's essay, "Toward Community." Do you want to understand the one-sided limitations in the bourgeois notion of freedom, then Lichtman's "Socialist Freedom" is essential reading. Are you sufficiently clear about the role that equality plays in liberal thought? If not, then read Lichtman's essay, "The Façade of Equality in Liberal Theory." Do you wish to grasp how universities and their supposed tolerance fit into the overall picture, then read Lichtman's essays, "The Ideological Function of the University," and, "Repressive Tolerance." And in his cornerstone essay, "Marx's Theory of Ideology," one finds the fundamentals of Marx's (and Lichtman's) approach to this entire subject laid out as clearly and carefully as has ever been done. Freedom, equality, justice, tolerance, community, Christianity, ideology and the market—these are among capitalism's most strategic targets, and every one of Lichtman's arrows is a bull's-eye.

In the most widely quoted of his theses on Feurbach, Marx maintained that philosophers have only tried to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it. While some have misinterpreted this as a call to drop philosophy, others have recognized it as a demand that philosophers participate more directly in the class struggle. Philosophy can help change the world by learning how it really works—in general, during the capitalist epoch, and in particular sites within capitalism in our own day—and sharing this understanding with workers and other oppressed people in a way that both raises their consciousness of what needs doing and strengthens their resolve to do it. It's a big job, one that is never more that partly and imperfectly done, and those who do it best receive a cool and worse reception from the Academy and the media, where a premium is placed on the chimera of neutrality, misnamed objectivity. In this ongoing battle to unmask the exploiters, to reveal their multiple traps and tricks, and especially the ideological forms through which they've gotten people to participate in their own enslavement, few thinkers in recent decades have struck more telling blows than Richard Lichtman. Our own ideology besotted times cries out for more conscious, more intelligent, more learned forms of struggle. Lichtman's latest book accepts this challenge, and provides his readers with the theoretical ammunition they need to join in this struggle, and—with a little help from our friends—to win.


  1. Quoted in M. Rubel, "Fragments sociologiques dans les inedits de Marx." Cahier internationaux de sociologie, XXII (1957), p. 129.