:: Article

What Marxist Ideology Can Set In Motion

By Brian Leiter.

[An extract from ‘Marx, Ideology, Legal Positivism‘: Forthcoming in 101 Virginia Law Review (2015)].


I want to focus on what I take to be the philosophical interesting core of the Marxist theory of ideology—I will call it, accordingly, the “Marxian” theory of ideology, leaving for another day the question whether this is the best interpretation of everything Marx said on the matter.

On the Marxian theory, an “ideology” in the pejorative sense is an inferentially related set of beliefs about the character of the social, political and economic world that has two characteristics: (A) it falsely represents what are really the interests of a particular economic class as being in the general interest (call this “the Interests Mistake”); and (B) the Interests Mistake is possible because those who accept the ideology are mistaken about (or ignorant of)how they came to hold those beliefs (call this “the Genetic Mistake”).

What makes a set of beliefs with these characteristics “ideological” in a pejorative sense is not simply that it involves mistakes—mistakes are extremely common in the cognitive economy of any person—but that the mistakes affect the interests of the agent, that is, they are the kinds of mistakes that anyone concerned about their actual interests would want to correct. And because of that, continued credence in the ideology would not be compatible with understanding its actual genesis, since if those in the grips of the ideology understood the actual causal process by which they came to hold these pernicious beliefs they would no longer accept them. (Why etiology of belief bears on its acceptability is a point to which we will return.)

Here is an example that will help make concrete what is at stake in the Marxian theory of ideology:
A. Members of the “Tea Party” in the United States believe that low taxes are in the general interest (meaning, in particular, that they are in the interest of the lower- and middle-class people who make up large portions of the Tea Party).
B. Members of the “Tea Party” are mistaken: low taxes are not in their interest, since middle- and lower-class people depend on social security, Medicare, public schools, public parks, and other facilities that satisfy the needs and desires of most people and that can only be funded at adequate levels if taxes are higher, especially on the wealthy.
C. Members of the “Tea Party” are mistaken about which policies are in their interest because (in part) they are mistaken about how they came to believe (A), i.e., they do not realize the extent to which propaganda by the ruling classes led them to their false belief. If they realized the extent to which, e.g., billionaires fund advertising and candidates to promote the belief in A because it serves the interest of billionaires,10 they would no longer be able to believe A.
Nothing depends for our purposes on whether this is correct, though it is prima facie plausible. What matters is that it illustrates the conceptual structure of the claim that certain moral, political, or legal ideas might be ideological.

The preceding account of ideology creates conceptual space for a non-ideological sense of both morality and law in the Marxian theory. That is, moral or legal ideas can be non- ideological insofar as (a) they do not falsely represent the interests of a particular economic class as in the general interest; and/or (b) the acceptability of these ideas does not depend on obscuring their genesis in class-specific interests. If legal or moral ideas do not represent the interests of a particular class as being in the general interest, then it is easy to see why these ideas would not be pejoratively ideological. But the second point is of equal importance, since Marx presents (as we will see) communism as promoting class-specific interests—the interests of the vast majority—yet does not think communist ideology is an ideology in the pejorative sense. Why not?

Consider, to start, a quite different case. Suppose that we have the empirical science we have because it is in the interests of the ruling class that we have this empirical science. This is probably true: many (maybe all) members of the capitalist class have a powerful economic interest in a correct understanding of the causal laws governing the natural world for obvious reasons, so they have a reason to encourage an epistemically reliable empirical science that gives them the understanding essential for effective productive exploitation of the natural world. This fact—assuming it is a fact—about the genesis of our empirical science would not affect its acceptability, however. The acceptability of empirical science depends on epistemic criteria (such as evidential warrant, explanatory power and predictive success), and not on whether the resulting claims are genuinely in everyone’s interest. So it can be true that we have the empirical science we have because it is in the interest of our capitalist overlords, and that fact would not affect the epistemic acceptability of the claims of that science.

Moral and (many) legal claims are different from the claims of empirical science in this regard. If we accept them as legitimate or warranted only because of a mistake about their class- interest-specific genesis, then discovering that fact makes them unacceptable, since moral and legal claims are almost always presented as committed to a basic equality of interests. So, for example, if the reason current U.S. free speech doctrine protects unrestricted spending by the wealthy in elections is because this insures that the political system does the bidding of plutocrats, then most people have no reason to affirm the free speech value of unlimited political spending by the wealthy: if free speech is a value, it must be good for everyone, not just the wealthy. (Notice that what is at stake is the moral status or acceptability of the legal claim: the status of the claim qua legal does not depend on these considerations.) So, too, with moral prescriptions and proscriptions: in both utilitarian and deontological versions, they present themselves as objective demands, not hostage to the interests of particular persons. If the acceptability of such norms depends on obscuring the fact that they serve the interests of only certain persons, then such norms would cease to be acceptable.

To sum up, in the Marxian theory, norms (moral or legal) are ideological insofar as (i) we have the norms we have because it is in the interests of the dominant class that we have them; (ii) we are unaware of the truth of (i); and (iii) being aware of the truth of (i) is incompatible with continued belief in those norms being acceptable.

The preceding goes a long way towards explaining why Marx consistently presents the communist normative point of view as a class-specific one. (I take Marx to be a kind of consequentialist welfarist with regard to what we would call “moral” questions, i.e., he thinks the right thing to do is what would maximize the well-being of the vast majority of humanity. He does not argue for this, since he believes, correctly, that normative theorizing is irrelevant to revolutionary practice: of course, the vast majority of humanity will be interested in maximizing its well-being!The real aim of theory is to help the vast majority understand the actual obstacles to realizing its well-being.) Marx describes, for example, “the proletarian movement” as simply being “in the interests of the immense majority.” “The Communists fight for . . . the momentary interests of the working class.”

Marx derides the German “True” Socialists (though he might just as well have been thinking of Habermas) for thinking that socialism reflects “the requirements of truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.” And he derides Critical-Utopian Socialists for “consider[ing] themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favoured.” And similarly:
“The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would- be universal reformer.
They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”

So the ethical imperatives of the Communist movement represent a class-interest-specific morality, just one in the interests of the vast majority, as opposed to the ruling class. And this morality is not ideological because its acceptability also does not depend on its not being class-interest-specific—indeed, there is no mistake about its genesis either: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”


[Photo: Steve Pike]

Brian Leiter is Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago. He teaches and writes primarily in the areas of moral, political, and legal philosophy, in both Anglophone and Continental traditions. His interview for 3:AM can be read here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 7th, 2015.