George Walford: Ideology, Autonomous or Epiphenomenal?

Ideology, Autonomous or Epiphenomenal? by George Walford

To hold that ideology is an epiphenomenon is to hold that it is the reflection or expression of events or revelations in another field. This view demands consideration both for its intrinsic interest and also because it forms part of a large and influential body of thought. Marxism in all its varieties – neo-, Leninist-, Maoist and the rest – holds the epiphenomenal view of ideology. The classic statement is found in The German Ideology: life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life.  Our concern is with that part, type or form of consciousness known as ideology. The proposition that life determines ideology, is indisputable. It is also close to being meaningless. For ideology is a part of human life. The statement that ideology is determined by a life that includes ideology leaves open the question it was intended to answer, the question whether ideology is epiphenomenal (determined by non-ideological factors) or autonomous (self-determined). And the situation is not improved if we substitute for “life” the apparently more specific “conditions of life.” For ideology, our own and other people’s, is itself one of the conditions of life.

In order to show that ideology is an epiphenomenon we must do two things. First, we must distinguish some complex of factors which does not include ideology. Secondly, we must show that this complex determines ideology.

One such complex, and one playing a large part in Marxism, is the class position of a person or group. Membership of one class or another is (with socially insignificant exceptions) determined by birth; it is not determined by ideology. In “class position” we have our first requirement, a complex of factors not including ideology. If we can go on to show that class position determines ideology we shall have done what is required, we shall have shown that ideology is determined by non-ideological factors, that it is an epiphenomenon.

The bourgeoisie, in Marxist theory, is a class, a group occupying a specific place in the economic and social hierarchy, and the expression “bourgeois ideology” ascribed to this class a specific ideology. The Marxist view is that when the bourgeoisie speak of things apparently independent of class relationships – religion, science and art for example – their pronouncements are not to be taken at face value. Whether the speaker knows it or not, the reason for holding these views is that they tend to further the interest of his class.

We may accept that the bourgeoisie, considered as a class, does hold “the bourgeois ideology.” But in order to show that class position determines ideology it is necessary to show more than this. It is necessary to show not only that the bourgeoisie do hold this ideology but, also, that the working class do not hold it. And when we test the proposition in this way it proves to not be valid.

There are those who hold “the bourgeois ideology” and there are also those who hold non-bourgeois ideologies, but the division between these two groups does not correspond with the division between the bourgeoisie and the non-bourgeois classes. It is not the case that only the bourgeoisie hold “the bourgeois ideology.” The great majority of the workers also hold it. It is not the case that the bourgeoisie has one ideology and the working class another.

The discrepancy between the proposition that class position determines ideology and the observable situation is gross and obvious, and Marxists are well aware of it. It is largely for this reason that they do not accept the proposition in this direct and unqualified form. They accept it only with reservations: they hold that class position determines ideology not simply and directly but “basically” or “ultimately.”

David McLellan gives a quotation from Engles and speaks of it as “summarising his views”

… according to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure […] political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development in the systems of dogmas – also exercise their influence upon the course of the historic struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.

These revised versions of the proposition are more plausible than the original. They are easier to defend, they do not run directly counter to the evidence, they are more modest and more sophisticated. But in acquiring these properties they have lost others. The original proposition was bold and straightforward. It was, in the specialised sense, “interesting:” it carried immediately significant consequences. This cannot be said of the revised versions. In restricting the determining role of class position to the “basic” or “ultimate” they implicitly admit that class position does not determine the ideological behaviour with which we are directly confronted. But it is this behaviour we need to explain, it is for explanation of this behaviour that we turned to Marxism in the first place.

The proposition that class position determines ideology is strong and attractive. It promises relief from perplexity. But it cannot be maintained. When we try to use it it melts in the hand, leaving us with only an “ultimate” or “basic” explanation which is not usefully related to our immediate problems.

If class position does not immediately determine ideology, what does do so? The critical activity of Marxism has already eliminated most contestants for the position, such as divine prescription, biological, geographical or climatic influences. There is, in fact, no serious contender left except ideology itself. We are driven to accept that, whatever may be the ultimate determinant of ideological behaviour, it is, immediately, ideology that determines ideology. And when we turn our attention from the theory of Marxism to the practice of Marxists we find they themselves accept this. They do not act on the assumption that in order to change the ideologies of men we must change their material conditions of life. On the contrary. They set out to change ideologies by means which are rather ideological than material, by the use of propaganda, education, discussion and persuasion. They act on the assumption that, immediately if not ultimately, ideology is not epiphenomenal but an autonomous sphere of activity.

November 1977