Ideology and the Class Struggle of Dialectical Materialism

It was characteristic of Marx that he was interested less in perfecting dialectical materialism as a philosophy of history than in applying it to concrete situations, especially with the purpose of finding a program of action for a consciously revolutionary proletariat.

Thus in 1848 he and Engels used the class struggle as the key to all hitherto existing society in the Communist Manifesto, which became one of the great revolutionary tracts of all times. A little later he wrote two pamphlets to explain the failure of the revolutionary struggle which had just occurred in France. They applied the economic interpretation to a problem in contemporary history.

These pamphlets illustrate the singular combination of dogmatism with shrewd observation and detailed realistic information characteristic of Marx. They give a very able and incisive analysis of the economic affiliations of the several parties in the revolution and also a clear insight into the inchoate state of the proletarian parties.

They are indeed much the kind of analysis of a revolutionary situation which any first-class journalist would now try to make, a clear indication of the extent to which Marxian interpretation has gained general acceptance. At the same time Marx’s description is underlain by a largely a priori theory of social classes, and the pamphlets certainly do not justify the extravagant claims which Marxists often make for the dialectic as a means of prognosis.

Marx’s prophecy, that the recurrence of a business depression like that of 1847 would start the revolution a new, was mistaken and, as Engels candidly admitted later, Marx quite failed to appreciate the possibilities for development contained within the capitalist system.

The pamphlets serve also to make clearer Marx’s conception of the relation of social classes both to the course of history and also to their own mentality. The class had for Marx a collective unity as the nation had for Hegel. It acts in history as a unit and it produces its characteristic ideas and beliefs as a unit, acting under the compulsion of its place in the economic and social system.

The individual counts mainly through his membership in the class, because his ideas-his moral convictions, his esthetic preferences, ever the kind of reasoning that seems to him convincing-are in the main a reflection of the ideas generated by the class.

Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence rises an entire superstructure of distinct and characteristically formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual who derives them through tradition and education may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting-point of his activity.

This passage suggests the peculiar sense in which Marx used the word ideology. Ideas reflect and more or less misrepresent an underlying economic reality; they are my stratification of it, at least in so far as their origin has not been unmasked. As idea! motives or reasons for conduct they are merely appearances or manifestations Of something which is in its real nature quite different.

And though they seem valid and compelling to their unsophisticated possessor, their compulsive force is really something which is not in his consciousness at all but is concealed in the social position of his class and in its relations to economic production. The theory evidently depends upon Hegel’s contrast of appearance and reality.

Marx’s forces of production, like Hegel’s World Spirit, are infinitely cunning in creating all manner of illusions and my stratification to realize their inherent purpose, and Marx’s classes give birth to their appropriate ideologies much as Hegel imagined that the spirit of the nation gives birth to a national culture.

An expression like modes of thought and views of life, however, may be very misleading. It can cover a spectrum of beliefs and practices ranging from superstition to science, and the fact that a belief originates in a social class or is characteristic of it does not imply that it is either valid or invalid. Marx no more than anyone else supposed that all beliefs are on the same level of truth or that all practices are equally moral.

The notion of ideology was at once one of Marx’s most pregnant ideas and also one of the vaguest and most subject to abuse That people are biased by social position is obvious; it may even be true that bias sometimes helps them to see evidence that other people overlook, but the notion that bias piled on bias adds up to evidence is merely a myth.

Ideology as Marx used it was a powerful controversial weapon but one that can be used with equal force by all contestants until every theory, including Marxism itself, is unmasked as a form of special pleading. The Arbiter of every such controversy is power.

The two pamphlets on the revolutionary movement in France laid down also the main outline of Marx’s theory of class structure in modern industrial societies. This theory was pretty clearly suggested to him by his observation of French society and his experience with french socialism, though Marx’s conception of industrial capitalism and of an industrial proletariat depended in the main on the history of English industry. For no very cogent reason he assumed that this compilation provided a type to which all industrial societies would in general approximate.

The theory postulated a middle class mainly urban and commercial in its interests and devoted politically to the civil and political liberties of the Revolution, and an industrial proletariat also mainly urban but concerned more with economic security than with political liberty. These classes Marx regarded as the active political forces in a modern society, the forces between which the class struggle mainly takes place, so that the issue is fundamentally the dominance of one or the other.

The other classes that the theory recognized, the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie, he regarded as politically inert though they may, under proper circumstances, be able to affect what the two active classes can do. Marx also considered the ideology of the peasant class and of farmers to be characteristically petty bourgeois.

This theory is obviously tailored to fit the dialectic, which obliged Marx to have two main opponents who generate change by their mutual tensions. For this reason it was largely a priori even though it embodied his penetrating perception of the revolutionary consequences of the industrial revolution.

Because the dialectic runs in terms of the logical contrariety between two types, details are regarded as merely variations on a theme, and minor differences do not count. Hence the theory records observations of society at large but not detailed observation of any single society.

What is left over from the two main classes is merely lumped, with the result that what he calls the petty bourgeoisie is a heterogeneous collection of elements that have little in common except that they resist being classified as Capitalists or workingmen. Thus it puts farmers and peasants with independent artisans and small shopkeepers; it has no place for professional people or the increasing number of white collar workers whose jobs were created by industry.

In consequence, though Marxists have always believed the class struggle to be the only reliable guide to political strategy, the vagueness of Marx’s concept of a social class was responsible for some of his worst errors in prediction. Throughout the nineteenth century farmers were the despair of Marxian theorists and Organizers, and peasants became industrial laborers only under compulsion.

No empirical sociology would count independent artisans and office workers as having the same type of work experience. And the expectation that every kind of salaried employee would be absorbed into the class of wage laborers was wide of the mark. It is impossible not to believe that Marx’s farsighted predictions of some trends in Capitalism were made in spite of the dialectic rather than because of it,

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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