Ideology according to Marx – definition and explanation
Karl Marx's philosophy should be understood against the background of the philosophy of the Enlightenment that believed that the world can be objectively understood through the medium of the naturally observing mind that is the gateway for liberating the human spirit.
Marx wrote "The German Ideology" two years before he published his famous "Communist Manifesto" and already here he presents a well formulated, and revolutionary, understanding of ideology. Unlike the young Hegelians, led by Feuerbach, Marx claimed that ideas and ideology are no independent, as Idealism would have, but rather a product which is dependent on material matters, namely social and economic structures. According to Marx, ideas, perceptions and consciousness are always the result of specific historic material circumstances.
What differentiates humans from animals according to Marx is that man is the only species that manufactures in order to survive; this is his basic function while every other aspect of human life is derived from this one central feature. According to Marx every society in history organized its production according to its available means of production that determine relations of production (i.e. feudalism, capitalism, communism…) and its own concept of property.
This is what Marx calls the economic base. On top of the economic base Marx poses the "superstructure", all cultural structures that are the result of the economic base. An important part of the superstructure is, according to Marx, ideology. Ideology according to Marx is a veil pulled over the economic base in order to prevent people from seeing its inherit injustice (that is, until communism comes). Ideology convinces people that the current state of production is justified, warranted, "natural" or anything else which gets them to comply to it. Ideology has been famously referred to my Marx as "false consciousness". Revolutions come about when the fallacy of this consciousness is recognized.
When Hegel and his followers saw a shift in human consciousness Marx saw a shift in human economical structures that results in changes to the ideology.
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More summaries of Marx's writings and ideas:
An Extended Summary of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (chapter 1, chapter 2, chapters 3 and 4)