William Clare Roberts–Ideology and Self-Emancipation: Voluntary Servitude, False Consciousness, and the Career of Critical Social Theory


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William Clare Roberts–Ideology and self-emancipation: Voluntary servitude, false consciousness, and the career of critical social theory


“Not a single class and not a single party can do without ideology, and the whole question is what its specific content is.”

– “Orthodox”[1]


1. Introduction

Ideology is said in many ways. Too many ways. It is an inescapable word, but that is because it is used in a multitude of senses to name a dizzying array of phenomena.[2] It would be hubris to attempt to bring order to all of this literature. Nonetheless, there is one throughline in the history of ideology as a concept that is inescapable for any effort to rethink the radical politics of freedom, a project with some urgency today. If the north star of radical politics is universal emancipation from domination, and if the means of transport is the self-emancipation of the dominated, then navigating the question of voluntary servitude is inescapable.

“Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” These lines are from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. When they were written, they urged on the Greek national struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. However, they soon traveled to other contexts and other struggles. They were taken up as a motto by Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, James McCune Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, and Martin R. Delaney. The lines “achieved great stature in antislavery discourse in part because they provided an essential point of reference in distinguishing between an orthodox abolitionism that awaited revolution from above and a heretical abolitionism that agitated for revolution from below” (Hickman 2016: 355).

This dividing line ran not only through abolitionism but through nineteenth- and twentieth century political thought more generally. The Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association, drafted by Karl Marx in 1864, begin from the premise “that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Both Mikhail Bakunin and Errico Malatesta affirmed similar statements. A century later, Martin Luther King, Jr., the last great post-Hegelian political leader in the West, claimed that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” This same conviction runs through anticolonial theorists and political activists, from Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon to Walter Rodney and Steve Biko.[3] Biko, for instance, was forthright “that the blacks do not need a go-between in this struggle for their own emancipation” (2002: 25).

What unites these claims is the intuition that freedom must be won, in some sense, by the unfree. And yet this political imperative has produced an array of theoretical perplexities and confusions. If the oppressed can emancipate themselves and are even under an obligation to do so, it is hard to account for why they are not already free without recourse to the paradoxical claim that the oppressed freely choose to be oppressed. And, indeed, this paradoxical claim has been articulated and insisted upon. Henry Highland Garnet, in his “Address to the Slaves of the United States,” proclaimed in no uncertain terms that “IT IS SINFUL IN THE EXTREME FOR YOU TO MAKE VOLUNTARY SUBMISSION” to the degrading conditions of enslavement (2001: 262).[4]

Navigating this paradox of voluntary submission or voluntary servitude is one of the things that, historically, the theory of ideology has been supposed to do. Why, after all, would the oppressed and exploited, who generally outnumber, their oppressors and exploiters, often many times over, put up with such treatment? “If the people had understood their true interests, could any power or accident reduce them to the state they are now in?” (Benbow 1832: 6) Therefore, the people, who can and should emancipate themselves, must be preserved in their state of voluntary submission by “want of knowledge of their own worth and power,” an ignorance enforced by “the bonds of superstition and prejudice” and encouraged by the ruling classes who benefit therefrom (Benbow 1832: 5). This is the fount of the theory of ideology as a false consciousness that preserves domination. It is supposed to explain how self-emancipation, although it is within the power and in the interests of the oppressed, appears either impossible or undesirable. An epistemic barrier is all that stands in their way.

The most commonly encountered version of the theory of ideology, however, is singularly ill-fitted to navigate anything at all. According to Ideology 101, the dominated have a material interest in overturning the society that oppresses them, but they are imbued with a false consciousness regarding their own interests. This false consciousness is due to a distorted representation of social relations that, by concealing the real nature of these relations, serves the interests of the dominant. Ideology exists because it is functionally beneficial for the ruling class, and it operates primarily either by legitimizing domination or by naturalizing it (or both). This makes alternative social arrangements unthinkable, thereby preventing self-emancipation.[5]

An operationalized version of this account, aimed at a popular audience and geared towards political mobilization, claims that, “an ideology is an outlook that presents the interests of a powerful part of society as the universal interest, so that the whole of society will tend to see the interests of that part of society which the ideology primarily serves as their own interests.” Ideology is functional for the system of power insofar as it “systematically obscures and misrepresents our political agency,” or, alternately, insofar as it “institutionalises a worldview that legitimises the governing class and the way that class uses its control of the state’s power” (Ramsay 2022).

This account of ideology is, I submit, worthless. It has no basis in any realistic analysis of exploitation or domination. It tells us nothing about the world of social power. It is no aid to emancipatory struggles of any sort. It is, basically, a junk drawer of broken claims and verbal tics, torn from any context that might give them meaning, and jumbled together without any regard for truth, sense, or utility.

I am hardly the first person to notice that this traditional “concept of ideology has fallen into disrepute” (Cooke 2006: 4). It has been attacked by social theorists and philosophers and activists. Barrington Moore undermined it (1978). Andrea Dworkin undermined it (1983). It was attacked outright by Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill, and Bryan Turner, in a book widely credited with having destroyed it (1980). It was attacked by James Scott (1987). It was attacked again by James Scott (1990). It was attacked by Adam Przeworski (1985). It was given another book-length working over by Michael Rosen (1996), and now another book-length assault by Vivek Chibber (2022). Taking this up again might reasonably seem like mere necrohippoflagellation.

However, the existing criticisms of the theory of ideology do not situate ideology in relation to the self-emancipation thesis.[6] Instead, they situate ideology as a problem within the study of social stability, or of protest and resistance, or of complicity and collaboration. Therefore, there is something hollow about the victories repeatedly won against this theoretical antagonist. Because the attacks on the theory of ideology have not located that theory within the practical problem that motivates it, these attacks have left those interested in self-emancipation with no recourse but to regenerate the theory of ideology. Its critics have provided no alternative.

This essay attempts, therefore, to return ideology to the problem of self-emancipation, and thereby to bring some reasonable order to our judgments about the sense and utility of the word. It is historical in approach and constitutes a prolegomenon to the work of disentangling the living from the dead in twentieth century accounts of ideology.

The basic story I tell is one of reasonable local interventions half-remembered and misappropriated, inserted into new contexts, and mutating further with every reinsertion. I identify three basic families of ideology-concepts, each of which interacts in its own way with the problem self-emancipation and with the idea of voluntary servitude. I begin by recalling what voluntary servitude meant prior to the invention of ideology, when it was part of both ancient and Renaissance aristocratic discourses (Section II). This prehistory already contains three elements that will be important to the later career of ideology: the notion of a second nature, the idea that consent can be manufactured, and the opposition between immediate interests and duty.

The first account of ideology was proposed by the French liberal philosopher, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, and it was an Enlightenment project of social reform through pedagogy (Section III). This account was preserved intact when it was criticized as idealist and ineffective by Marx and Engels (Section IV). The aim of these sections is to locate a break between the pre-Marxist articulation of ideology, voluntary servitude, and emancipation – a pre-Marxist history which includes Marx and Engels – and the twentieth century career of ideology as a Marxist and post-Marxist category.

Section V turns to two accounts of ideology that are Marxist in origin, but basically unrelated to Marx and Engels’s criticisms of Destutt de Tracy and all the other “ideologists.” Both Marxist accounts emerge from Lenin’s valorization of “ideological struggle” – agitation and organizing work around political grievances, tactical issues, and doctrinal disputes. One stream, flowing through Lukács and issuing in the Frankfurt School of critical theory, conceives ideology as a partial and therefore false consciousness of the social totality (Section VI). The other, flowing through Gramsci and Althusser before issuing in the work of Stuart Hall and Göran Therborn, conceives ideology as the institutional norms and discursive practices that pattern and elicit agency (Section VII).

The conclusions of this historical reconstruction are mixed. In the negative column, the Lenin-Lukács-Frankfurt tradition of ideology critique is dead, and its soul has departed its body. The body – a certain political practice of communist morality – is in an advanced state of putrescence, breaking down continuously and giving off a stench. The soul has ascended to a higher plane of pure normativity, where it has all of the effective power you would expect in an incorporeal being. However, on the other side of the ledger, the Lenin-Gramsci-Althusser tradition of ideology theory provides important theoretical resources for analyzing social domination and struggles for self-emancipation among the dominated. Putting these resources to work should be the project of critical social theory.


2. Voluntary servitude before ideology

The notion of voluntary servitude predates by centuries both the theorization of ideology and the formulation of the self-emancipation thesis. In the first instance, voluntary servitude was a staple of Greek and Roman discourse. It was both recommended as a form of tutelage – if a young man could find a master/mentor who could make him better – and bemoaned as a tiresome wasting of one’s life “in a thankless attending upon the great” (Seneca 1932: 289). Regardless, it was a choice made – well or poorly – by a young man trying to make something of himself.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates claims that all who are unable to master themselves through philosophical self-discipline ought to serve a master who is able to do so. Everyone is ethically obligated to serve the mind, to be directed “by what is divine and prudent,” if not in one’s own soul then in the soul of another, “set over one from outside” (2016: 591c-d). This ethical obligation does not give to anyone a right to forcibly enslave another, however. It is not the business of the philosopher to capture and compel students or of a good man to hunt admirers. Recognition of and attendance upon a worthy master should be voluntary, and each should be “a seeker and a student of that study by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those that are possible” (2016: 618c).

The ancient discourse circles around the task of choosing well your way of life and your role model, one who lives a paradigmatic life worth emulating. It does not address the forms of actual slavery that everywhere surround the mentor and mentee. Actual slavery, even when it is thought to be natural and beneficial to the enslaved (as in Aristotle, Philo, or Augustine), is premised on force and necessity. Slaves are either frankly acknowledged to be unwilling captives or are condescendingly understood as incapable of recognizing what is good for them.[7] Regardless, their bondage is not voluntary. Voluntary servitude and legally sanctioned domination did not overlap, therefore, even if the latter provided a fund of metaphors for speaking about the former.[8]

When this ancient discourse was relaunched during the renaissance of the sixteenth century, however, forcible domination and voluntary servitude are seen to be much more closely linked. The two remain distinct, but are understood to interact causally. The basic schema is that the voluntary servitude of some enables the forcible domination of others. Chattel slavery has receded into the background of European experience, even as it is about to roar back to the center of the new Atlantic economy. Free cities are fewer and are not at the head of political organization, but adjuncts to kingly and papal courts. The two realms of the ancient world, the realm of free citizens and the realm of slaves, are not, therefore, massive social facts but inherited categories of thought. Instead of slavery, therefore, tyranny is the reference point.[9]

Estienne de La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, published posthumously by his friend, Michel de Montaigne, is an exemplary discussion in this respect. La Boétie sets himself the task of explaining “how it happens that so many men, so many towns, so many cities, so many nations at times tolerate a single tyrant who has no other power than what they grant him, who has no other power to harm them than inasmuch as they are willing to tolerate it, who could do ill to them only insofar as they would rather suffer it than oppose him” (2012: 2). This fact of political tyranny cannot be explained by the principles of either Ciceronian or Machiavellian statecraft. It makes no rational sense for so many to fear “a single puny man, and generally the most cowardly, effeminate one in the nation.” Nor can anyone love the one who subjects them to “pillage, lechery, cruelty,” who leaves them “with neither property, nor relations, wives, nor children, not even their lives belonging to them” (2012: 4). If neither love nor fear actuates tyranny, then some new principle of rule must be revealed.

La Boétie proposes three: custom, trickery, and corruption.

First, he argues that human beings are “denatured” by custom, which overwhelms our natural inclinations and teaches us to serve (2012: 11). However, this is obviously an inadequate answer to the puzzle. Custom can go either way. It can cultivate the desire for liberty – La Boétie points to the Venetians and the Spartans[10] – as well as the desire for a master. Thus, it is only for “men born under the yoke and then raised and nurtured in serfdom” that being “content to live as they were born, without looking any further,” entails servitude (2012: 13). Hence, we arrive at the real inadequacy of explaining servitude by reference to custom: it simply pushes the question back a step. How were free people ever subjected in the first place, such that they can become accustomed to servitude?

Therefore, La Boétie advances a second argument. Most people, he claims, are credulous and easily tricked. “In truth, it is in the nature of the common people,” he claims, “to be suspicious of those who love them and gullible towards those who fool them.”

You should not imagine that there is any bird more easily taken in by a decoy, or any fish swallows the hook more rapidly for an appetizing worm, than all people are quickly tempted into servitude by the slightest lure that is passed before their mouths, as they say; it is amazing how quickly they let themselves go if only you titillate them. Plays, games, street-shows, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medallions, tableaus, and other such merchandise were for people in ancient times the bait of servitude, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. (2012: 23)

Both of these arguments, however, apply only to the common run of people. They are easily fooled into giving up their freedom, and easily trained to bear the yoke of servitude. But these methods “work for tyrants only with lower-class, common folk” (La Boétie 2012: 29). There is always a minority, “better born than the others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot help shaking it, who never grow used to subjection” (2012: 17). For these few, “servitude is not to their taste, no matter how it is dressed up” (2012: 18).

Nonetheless, La Boétie seems to think that even the better sort of people are susceptible to certain inducements, even when they are “well-armed” and “can carry out some action” (2012: 30). How so?

This subject occupies the last portion of La Boétie’s essay, and he calls it “the source and secret of domination, the basis and foundation of tyranny” (2012: 30). This secret is, in brief, that those who cannot be tricked or trained can still often be corrupted by material interests. Thus, “there are almost as many for whom tyranny seems to profit as those for whom liberty would be agreeable,” and, through “patronage or sub-patronage,” the tyrant is able to draw to him those who “want to serve in order to have possessions” (2012: 31, 33).

The tyrant thus enslaves some of his subjects by means of the others, and is guarded by those of whom he himself ought to be wary if they were worth anything: as they say, to split wood he uses wedges of the wood itself. So here are his archers, here are his guards, here are his halberdiers – not that they themselves do not suffer at times from him, but these poor souls, abandoned by God and men, are content to endure ill in order to do ill, not to the one who does it to them, but to those who endure it as they do and can do nothing about it. (La Boétie 2012: 32)

These are the real “voluntary servants” of the Discourse’s title: those who willingly submit to a tyrant in order to enjoy the plunder and enforce the misrule.[11]

La Boétie claims they are making a fool’s bargain. They cannot really possess anything so long as the one they serve has the power to take it all away whenever they wish (2012: 33). Nor can they really count on the tyrant’s love and friendship – a tyrant, by his nature, does not know “the best thing to do” and “never either is loved or himself loves” (2012: 35). Even if they escape their lord’s fickle willfulness and suspicion of those closest at hand, these accomplices will be destroyed by the tyrant’s successor and hated by the people, and “the names of these ‘people-eaters’” will be “blackened by the ink of countless quills and their reputations torn apart in countless books” (2012: 38). Therefore, while these ‘better sorts’ of servants may not be fooled by the tyrant’s tricks, they fool themselves. And so La Boétie end with a plea to his readers to “learn to do good,” so as not to become “accomplices” to tyrants (2012: 38).

In La Boétie’s three principles of subjection one can discern three great hypotheses of Enlightenment political thought. First, that culture is a second nature, leading people to act in ways that cannot be understood as following from our rational nature. Secondly, that consent can be manufactured through the skillful manipulation of images and distractions. Finally, that economic interests rule all, and that (almost) everyone and everything has their price.

None of these, however, amount to the idea that an individual voluntarily gives to another the power to dominate them. Despite La Boétie’s rhetoric, these principles all operate via contrasts between one and many, self and other: a few give the tyrant the means to dominate the many, we give the tyrant the power to dominate others, they give the tyrant the power to dominate us. The consequence may be that the people considered in toto seem to give to the tyrant the power to dominate the people in toto, but this looks more like a fallacy of composition than like a valid diagnosis.

This is hardly fatal to the argument, however, since La Boétie’s discourse is aimed at the conscience of the nobleman. It is not supposed to be a general social theory of domination, but a call to be a certain sort of person: incorruptible, public spirited, upright. It appeals to those like the author himself. Indeed, since La Boétie made no move to publish his discourse, it might best be read as an appeal to the author himself. Its mode of address hovers between ethical exhortation and meditation. It recalls to the reader/writer the many temptations that would lure him from the straight path, and the punishments – spiritual and social – that would befall him were he to stay.

Within this ethical mode of discourse the fate of all depends upon the virtue of each. At least among the nobility. The causal order obtaining between voluntary servitude and slavery to the despot runs from the top down. The voluntary servitude of “four or five”[12] secures the cord by which “a hundred thousand, and even millions,” are bound to the tyrant. In the ancient picture, the massive foundation of slavery and other forms of bonded labor made possible the sphere in which a few free men might make themselves the voluntary servants of worthy (or unworthy) mentors. There is conditioning here, and possibility, but not causality. In the post-Machiavellian and humanistic tradition of Montaigne and La Boétie, a causal relation obtains between forcible bondage and voluntary servitude, but it runs in exactly the opposite direction: the voluntary servitude of a few leisured men brings about the enslavement of the mass of the people.

“But where the danger lies, also grows the saving power.” The fundamentally aristocratic thrust of La Boétie’s discourse is rooted less in its disdain for the “lower-class, common folk” than in its exclusive attention to the actions and inclinations of these few, who can decide the fate of a nation. It may well be necessary to flatter those with wealth, land, and proximity to political power, to inflate for them their own importance to the commonwealth, so as to impress upon them a sense of noblesse oblige. It does not, however, make for either a very exacting social theory or anything like a radical commitment to self-emancipation.[13]


3. Ideology before ideology critique

“Ideology,” as a term, was coined in 1796 by one of the scholars and scientists grouped under the new Institut de France. Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, compte de Tracy, presented works on the moral and political sciences to his colleagues at the Institute, works which grew into his Elements of Ideology (1801-15). In content, little seems to unite the writings of Destutt de Tracy with La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. In his Elements, Destutt de Tracy tried to rigorously deduce a canon of probabilistic reasoning, a sentimentalist moral theory, and a liberal political economy from empiricist epistemological premises. Presented in a thoroughly didactic style, and intended to form the basis of a system of universal pedagogy, Destutt de Tracy’s writings are in almost every way contrary in spirit to La Boétie’s intensely private essay.

Nonetheless, Destutt de Tracy develops the central themes of La Boétie’s discourse – culture as a second nature, the manufacture of consent, and the rule of interests – and it makes sense to read his Elements as a belated and unintended answer to La Boétie. Like La Boétie, Destutt de Tracy attempts to understand the denaturalization of humanity, how we fall away from our original condition, in which we are free and enjoy an error-free apprehension of our world. Universalizing La Boétie’s picture of the “lower-class, common folk,” Destutt de Tracy constructs a model of the person as a desiring machine, amenable to behavioral modification. And like his predecessor, he posits an unstable and problematic distinction between desires and interests, between what motivates us and what ought to motivate us.

To put it baldly, ideology does not name, for Destutt de Tracy, the problem of voluntary servitude, but rather the solution to that problem. Destutt de Tracy used the term ideology to name a new science of ideas, one that would “give a complete knowledge of our intellectual faculties” and allow us “to deduce from that knowledge the first principles of all the other branches of our knowledge” (2011: 9). The goal was “really to place the moral and political sciences on their true basis, a knowledge of our intellectual faculties” (2011: 10). The most important consequences are the ones “which will experience the greatest opposition”: that “the great rural proprietors … are but lenders of money, burdensome to agriculture;” that “the idle rich … are absolutely good for nothing;” and that “the true interests of the poor are exactly the same as the true interest of the whole society” (2011: 255).

To convince the wealthy proprietors of these results, it is necessary not so much to oppose their interests – “well or ill understood” – as to overcome their passions, and especially their “vanity,” “the most violent and antisocial” of all the passions:

On many occasions, then, it is still more difficult to conciliate to truth than to discover it. … We have perceived, and said, that we should know well the consequences of our actions, to appreciate justly, the merit or demerit of the sentiments which urge us to this or that action; and now we see that it is necessary to analyze our sentiments themselves, submit them to a rigorous examination, distinguish those which being founded on just judgments always direct us well, and those which having their source in illusions, and rising from the obliquities of our minds, cannot fail to lead us astray and form within us a false and blind consciousness [une fausse et aveugle conscience], which always removes us further from the road of reason, the only one leading to happiness. (2011: 255)[14]

Thus, the project of ideology is, by the methodical investigation of the origin and train of our ideas, to overcome the false consciousness which can arise from a peculiar cast of mind and its attendant illusions. This false consciousness, by diverting people from the rational path, leads them to unhappiness, and nowhere more so than where “they employ the species of laborers the worst paid, namely slaves” (Destutt de Tracy 2011: 182). Moral corruption follows from epistemic faults.

Whereas La Boétie began from the natural liberty of human beings, and set out to explain how such creatures, “born not only in possession of our freedom, but with a desire to defend it” can be so “denatured” as to “lose the memory of [our] original being, and the desire to regain it” (2012: 9, 11), Destutt de Tracy begins from the natural truthfulness of our perceptions, which “are all of them always such as we feel them, and are not susceptible to error, taken each separately, and in itself” (2011: 34). From this beginning, he does not so much desire to explain how we come to be mired in error, confusion, and false beliefs – how we fall into error is easily comprehended, he thinks – but to establish a set of practices by which we might recall ourselves to the truthful comprehension of what we experience and preserve our judgments in this truth by methodical proceedings.

However, the fact that we do find ourselves enmeshed in error, despite the fact that “all our perceptions are originally just and true,” can only be the consequence of “admi[ting] an element which is opposed to” our original perceptions, “which denaturalizes and changes them, without our perceiving it” (Destutt de Tracy 2011: 36). For La Boétie, as we have seen, most people are easily lured to their doom by enticements. For Destutt de Tracy, the very basis of our personality is our experience of preferring one thing to another, which is nothing other than our will. This faculty of preference is primitively manifested in desire. In fact, Destutt de Tracy “give[s] indifferently the name of desire or of will to all the acts of this faculty.” “It is solely because we perform such acts,” he continues, “that we have the ideas of personality and of property” (2011: 67). The faculty of preference is both the basis of personality and the reason we are simple recording devices, accumulating true perceptions of the world around us. Desire leads us into error.

Unlike La Boétie, however, Destutt de Tracy does not wish to denigrate the desires of the masses, but to satisfy them. He maintains repeatedly that “every desire is a need[15]  and that we have both a right to satisfy all our needs and a duty to do so as expeditiously and effectively as we can, given whatever powers we possess. This duty is modified in unspecified ways by the ability we have to communicate with one another and to thereby enter into conventions, but our one general duty “of well employing our means” remains intact (Destutt de Tracy 2011: 90). Hence, we all face the situation in which we must pursue the satisfaction of our needs in a world of other sentient beings striving to do the same, and “as they act in consequence of their will it is [our] duty to conciliate or subjugate that will in order to bring them to contribute to the satisfaction of our desires” (2011: 84). And they have the same duty vis-à-vis us.

This is the basis of Destutt de Tracy’s liberal political economy, which is premised on the notion that a free and open labor market will conduce to the highest wages possible, and to the greatest general prosperity. He presumes that we are potentially very useful to one another, and that we can both generate and enjoy far more wealth if we cooperate with one another. For this reason, it is more efficacious to conciliate the wills of others than to subjugate them. This conciliation of the wills of others is nothing but society itself, and it consists in the offering to others of what they need in exchange for their assistance in acquiring what we need ourselves. “Commerce is the whole of society, as labor is the whole of riches,” and the benefits of the former – “concurrence of force, increase and preservation of knowledge, and division of labor” – show themselves in the immense augmentation of the power and extent of the latter (Destutt de Tracy 2011: 101–2).

Despite Destutt de Tracy’s equation of desire and need, however, he also admits that not every desire “is founded on a real need, that is to say on a just sentiment of our true interest” (2011: 68). This separation between a need – which every desire is – and a real need is tricky. As he continues, “we have also often real needs without experiencing desires; in this sense that many things are often very necessary to our greater well being, and even to our preservation, without our perceiving it, and consequently without our desiring them” (2011: 68). He brings forward the example of the internal workings of our bodies in holding off sickness, but he also gestures towards “all the combinations which take place in … the moral order, without our being aware of, or without our foreseeing, the consequences” (2011: 68–69). Here we might consider all manner of social dynamics and institutions. They may really benefit (or harm) us without us being able to perceive our reliance upon (or injury by) them. Thus, we might need – really need – them (or their removal), but without desiring them (or their removal). The opaque complexity of the social world – the fact that what is available to our immediate perception is given by and dependent upon indefinitely ramifying interactions and processes and relations that recede from inspection – makes it necessary that we need what we cannot desire.

Despite this recognition of social opacity, Destutt de Tracy claims immediately thereafter that “every actual need is a desire,” and that “we may lay it down as a general thesis, that our desires are the source of all our needs, none of which would exist without them” (2011: 69). These are hardly identical claims. One can appreciate that, yes, even real needs of which we are unaware and hence undesiring find their source of their needfulness in our desires: we need these “combinations in the moral order,” for instance, in order to satisfy the desires we feel using the powers we have. All manner of social infrastructure has the character of not necessarily being an object of desire, while yet being in service of desire. I may hate the presence of train tracks in my neighborhood, even though those tracks are used by trains supplying the produce I buy at the market. Nonetheless, Destutt de Tracy’s claim that every real need is a desire seems flatly contradicted by his own argument (and by a great deal of evidence, besides).

This contradiction is the key to understanding ideology as a program not simply for research but for systematic pedagogy. Ideology as a science of sensations issues in liberal political economy because, without doing away with social opacity, political economy provides assurances that this opacity is irrelevant. Every other person is situated just as we are, and every other person’s desires are also needs. So long as we have faith that every interaction is a voluntary social exchange, we have evidence of what we cannot see. The invisible hand undergirds or guarantees “the difficult virtue of minding your own business,” as Gerald Gaus has formulated the liberal ethical ideal, by making the contradiction between social opacity and self-transparency irrelevant for practical purposes (1997).[16]

On Gaus’s understanding, “Liberal society can only exist if, rather than making the doings of mankind or my neighbour my business, I acknowledge that no one is bound to enter my way of living unless I can appeal to his interests, however broadly defined” (1997: 2). As Gaus recognizes, this self-restraint on my part is only practically possible if “individuals are understood to be morally autonomous in the sense that they can put aside their fantasies, perversities or foolish notions and respect the legal personality of others, and are properly held morally accountable if they fail to do so” (1997).

Ideology was an attempt to teach people to be morally autonomous in this sense, but also, crucially, to teach people that others are morally autonomous in this sense, and that society among such morally autonomous individuals takes the exclusive form of commerce. Each of these premises supports and depends upon the others, and the logical structure that emerges is, like all triangular constructions, very stable and robust.

Ideology sought, then, to overcome vanity by teaching that every other is exactly like myself, to overcome passion by teaching that my desires will be best satisfied by my satisfying the desires of others, and to overcome illusion and false consciousness by teaching that every voluntary transaction is mutually beneficial. Ideology overcomes voluntary servitude by generalizing it, transmuting corruption into rectitude in much the same way as Mandeville transmuted private vices into public benefits. The pyramid of dependency, by which a whole nation is made to subserve the interests of one man, is destroyed by being fractalized. We all depend on others – and most especially on the capitalists – and this all-around dependency entails that, by means of commerce, we each subserve the interests of all.


4. The first ideology critique

It has become something of a commonplace that between Destutt de Tracy and Marx, the meaning of “ideology” underwent a reversal, and that Napoleon Bonaparte was the primary agent of this reversal.

The thesis of reversal is very wide-spread. Terry Eagleton claims that “Ideology, which in the hands of Marx and Engels will shortly come to denote the illusion that ideas are somehow autonomous of the material world, starts life [in Destutt de Tracy] as exactly the reverse: as one branch of a mechanical materialism which clings to the faith that the operations of the mind are as predictable as the laws of gravity” (1991, 66). Michael Rosen finds it “surprising and ironic” that between Destutt de Tracy and Marx there is an “apparent reversal in the meaning of the term,” such that what was once a French term of approbation for “a positive approach to the study of ideas in society” became a term of abuse for German idealism (1996: 170–71). Michael Freeden also portrays Marx and Engels as reversing the meaning of ideology along similar lines; from being a project “very much in line with the positivist movement in 19th century France,” ideology became, in the hands of Marx and Engels, a criticism of “the spiritual and romantic nature of German idealist thought,” which “attributed independent existence to ideas, thought, and consciousness” (2003: 4–5). George Lichtheim, in a classic essay that set the terms for much of the academic discussion of the history of ideology as a concept, did not go so far as to call Marx and Engels’s conception the reverse of Destutt de Tracy’s, but did insist that “the Marxian concept of ideology … from the start has a meaning different from that which it had for his eighteenth-century predecessors,” a difference that “reflects a clear awareness of the devaluation [the term ‘ideology’] had meanwhile undergone” (1965: 175, incl. n. 37).

That Napoleon is responsible for this reversal in sense is almost as widely asserted. Eagleton claims that it is with Napoleon that ideology “shifts from denoting a sceptical scientific materialism to signifying a sphere of abstract, disconnected ideas; and it is this meaning of the word which will then be taken up by Marx and Engels” (1991: 70). Jan Rehmann criticizes Eagleton for “overstat[ing] the continuity” between Napoleon’s attacks on the idéologues and Marx and Engels’s critical conception of ideology, but admits, “to be sure,” that the latter “tapped into (and were dependent on) the given semantic field that had been prepared by Napoleon’s attacks” (2014: 20).[17] Moreover, precisely where he identifies “similarities between the project of the idéologistes and of Marx” – in “a common interest in the critical analysis of ideas and images, the conditions in which they emerged, and their modes of functioning” – we can see that Rehmann presupposes the reversal of sense (2014: 20). For Destutt de Tracy, the critical analysis of ideas and images was ideology, whereas for Marx and Engels ideology named the “ideas and images” subject to critical analysis.

This commonplace story is, I think, almost entirely fiction. Yes, Bonaparte attacked Destutt de Tracy and his fellows, and made idéologue into a term of abuse for abstract and metaphysical thought. Yes, Marx grew up with this use of the term, and used the term this way in some of his earliest writings. But when Marx and Engels attacked “the German ideology,” they were, on the whole, using the term just as Destutt de Tracy used it, to name the effort to overcome illusions and false consciousness by means of rational argumentation.

The sense that there is a reversal here is explicable simply by the fact that Marx and Engels think the ideological project is ridiculous. The sense that they have picked up Napoleon’s use of the term is explicable by the fact that they associate this ideological project with the educators of humanity – “lawyers, politicians (statesmen in general), moralists, monastics” (Marx and Engels 2017, I/5: 120) – and their “occupational hazard” of exaggerating their own efficacy and independence, and by extension, of exaggerating the causal efficacy and independence of laws, speeches, arguments, and sermons.[18]

The continuity between Destutt de Tracy and Marx and Engels on the meaning of “ideology” is less surprising when one realizes that Marx had read – and copied out several pages of extracts from – the Traité de la Volonté in mid-1844, when he was living in Paris.[19] Marx and Engels were quite explicit about the purpose of their polemics against German philosophy and German socialism in 1845-46. In the text published as a “Preface” to The German Ideology,[20] Marx wrote:

People have always had false notions [falsche Vorstellungen] about themselves, about what they are and what they should be. They have set up their circumstances according to their notions of God, of normal people, etc. The monstrosities born of their brains have burst from their heads. They, the creators, bowed before their creatures. Let us free them from the fantasies, the ideas, the dogmas, the imaginary beings under whose yoke they waste away. Let us rebel against this domination of thought. Let us teach them to exchange these imaginings for thoughts that correspond to human nature, says one, to behave critically towards them, says the other, to put them out of their heads, says the third, and – existing reality will collapse.

These innocent and childish fantasies form the kernel of the modern Young Hegelian philosophy, which in Germany is not only received with horror and awe by the public, but is also presented by our philosophical heroes themselves with the solemn consciousness of its world-shattering dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. The purpose of the first volume of this publication is to unmask these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves, to show how they only bleat out philosophically the notions of the German Bürger, how the boasts of these philosophical interpreters only reflect the wretchedness of actual German conditions. (2017, I/5: 3)

In a crossed-out addendum to this text, Marx added, “There is no specific difference between German idealism and the ideology of all other peoples. These, too, regard the world as dominated by ideas, ideas or concepts as the defining principles, and definite thoughts as the mystery of the material world accessible to the philosophers” (2017, I/5: 804).

As we have seen, this is a fair, if sarcastic characterization of Destutt de Tracy’s pedagogical project. Marx is claiming that he Young Hegelians are engaged in a “German ideology,” very much akin to the French original. They wish to overcome illusions and false consciousness by means of rational criticism, by teaching Germans to abandon the “falsche Vorstellungen” that dominate their lives. The critique of ideology leveled by Marx and Engels, then, assimilates the German ideology to Destutt de Tracy’s ideology and criticizes both as forms of superstructure idealism (Mills 1992), the false belief that religious, intellectual, and political practices of discursive production have an independent and decisive causal power.

This critical appropriation of Destutt de Tracy’s term of art has caused immense confusion. Therefore, Paul Bowman has proposed referring to Marx and Engels’s critical concept as protagonism in order to differentiate it from the many other senses in which “ideology” has been used both within and outside Marxist traditions (2021). According to Bowman’s usage, protagonism names, narrowly, “the presumption that the state (or more precisely, the ideological superstructure) is where social change happens,” and, more broadly, “the (idealistic) delusion that the ideas of the ideological classes, the ideas which they fool themselves are the motives for the decisions they make, are the decisive force in historical agency” (2021). I will henceforth adopt Bowman’s convention for the sake of referring specifically to the object of Marx and Engels’s critique, and refer to protagonism-ideology.[21]

Marx and Engels understand protagonism-ideology, generally, as the attempt to remake the world either by force of words or so as to make it live up to an ideal. Their belief that protagonism-ideology is misguided is grounded in their “sociological materialism” (Mills 1992). Practices of production, exploitation, and domination are, on this view, causally prior to and effective apart from religious, intellectual, and political practices of discursive production, howsoever these latter are institutionalized. The types of speech acts that human communities can engage in are, broadly speaking, conditioned by the basic practices of material production that allow these communities to reproduce their existence. These practices of community reproduction always involve definite forms of social interaction among community members. Hunter-gatherer societies cannot support a complex social division of labor, for example, and no leisured priest class can arise where there is no developed division of labor.

This view does not deny that political ideas, religious myths, or intellectual theories can be causally effective in altering the social world. Marx and Engels spent their lives producing political ideas and intellectual theories in an attempt to change the social world, and it would be odd if they thought that their own project was impossible. Rather, their materialism specifies how discursive practices can be effective. The only way that ideas, myths, and theories can effectively transform society is by changing the form of material production and the forms of exploitation and domination that attend it. Institutionalized discursive practices like the modern system of research universities rely upon a highly-developed division of labor and a large economic surplus, but they also help to produce those things. Societies that can support such university systems realize gains in economic productivity and military defense capability that give them a competitive advantage against other forms of social organization.[22] But societies that can support complex systems of discourse production can also support a plethora of materially useless discourse production. This development encourages protagonism-ideology, since discourse producers in such societies will predictably be inclined to think of themselves as more than ornamental decorations on the surface of society.

The ur-type of protagonism-ideology, for Marx, was the liberal ideology he encountered in Destutt de Tracy. It sought, as we have seen, to remake the world by teaching people how to mind their own business. As a social reform project grounded in an ethical project of self-scrutiny and rational self-improvement, ideology is an obvious paradigm for protagonism. But it is also paradigmatic in that it sought to make the social world live up to an ideal of mutually-beneficial voluntary interaction which is itself derived, via abstraction, from concrete practices of market exchange.

Marx and Engels’s criticism of protagonism-ideology has little to do with what came to be called ideology critique, and just as little to do with the problem of voluntary servitude. Marx and Engels did think that Feuerbach, Bauer, Stirner, and company, had incorrect and confused ideas. But they did not think that these ideas concealed the real nature of German social relations, except in the banal sense that Feuerbach, Bauer, Stirner, and company were so preoccupied by their arguments with one another that they did not take the time or effort to investigate the real nature of German social relations. Neither did their ideas serve the interests of the dominant; they served only their own interest in inflating the theorists’ own importance.

Nowhere do Marx and Engels suggest that the German ideology is functionally beneficial for the German ruling class. On the contrary, they suggest that it is functionally useless. The German ideology is not a barrier to the self-emancipation of the German people, for the simple reason that if it were a barrier then the German ideology would be correct, and Marx and Engels’s whole point is that the German ideology is not correct. It is the German ideology itself that claims that incorrect ideas are a barrier to self-emancipation. This is the position Marx and Engels are mocking in the “German ideology” manuscripts. It is not their own position.

The claim that is most often pointed to as warrant for the notion that Marx and Engels subscribe to the dominant ideology thesis is their claim that, “The thoughts of the dominant class are in every epoch the dominant thoughts, i.e. the class which is the dominant material power in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual power” (2017, I/5: 60). However, this passage only seems to support the usual conclusion insofar as readers take the conclusion for granted in reading the sentence. There are two aspects to the problem. First, people assume that “the dominant thoughts” are equivalent to “ideology.”[23] Second, they assume that Marx and Engels are claiming that the thoughts of the dominant class are “the dominant thoughts” in the sense of being mental shackles, preventing the subordinate classes from freeing themselves. Neither assumption is warranted.

Read next to the prefatory text, the reference to “the dominant thoughts” of the epoch obviously echoes the philosophical heroes’ demand, “Let us rebel against this domination of thoughts.” The ruling ideas are not ideology. Rather, the notion that there are ruling ideas is basic to protagonism-ideology itself. Marx and Engels are deflating this protagonist-ideological notion by translating it into the materialist equivalent, “the thoughts of the dominant class.” The entire passage surrounding the oft-quoted sentence follows through on this claim by asserting that the dominant class in any society derives its ideas about itself, those it dominates, and the world in general, from its social situation. Its thoughts are “the ideal expression of the dominant material conditions, the dominant material conditions conceived as thoughts,” and so it makes no sense to act “as if the dominant thoughts were not the thoughts of the dominant class and had a power distinct from the power of that class” (2017, I/5: 60–61).

Marx and Engels’s critique of ideology is on this point: ideologists act as if the dominant ideas were something other than the ideas of the dominant and had a power apart from the power of the dominant class. Ideology names a naive approach to the dominant ideas, and approach that “detaches the thoughts of the ruling class from the ruling class,” “makes them independent,” and then “remains stuck with the fact that in one epoch these and those thoughts dominated without worrying about the conditions of production of and about the producers of these thoughts” (2017, I/5: 62). This is the “delusion of the ideologists,” and it is based in “the division of labor” (2017, I/5: 63), as Mills has argued (1992). Because of its social origin, ideology is itself usually among “the ruling ideas.” “The dominant class itself, on average, imagines” that its ideas are dominant because of their own power (Marx and Engels 2017, I/5: 62). This underscores, however, that ideology, from Marx and Engels, is not another name for “the ruling ideas.” Ideology is an idea commonly encountered among the dominant: the idea that the world is ruled by ideas, and a pedagogical project expressing that idea as a plan for general enlightenment.

The second assumption readers bring to this text is that, in some sense, “the ruling ideas” rule over the minds of the subordinate classes, acting as a barrier to their self-emancipation. In the words of Amy Wendling, they “organize our thinking,” and “wield, by virtue of this fact, a great deal of political power” (2012: xii). However, as we have already seen, this is what Marx and Engels are denying in this passage. The power of the dominant ideas is nothing but the power of the dominant class; there is no independent political power of ideas. But, one might object, how then are we to understand Marx and Engels’s claim that “the thoughts of those who lack the means of intellectual production are subordinate” to the thoughts of the dominant class? Or their claim that the members of the dominant class dominate also “as thinkers, as producers of thoughts, and regulate the production and distribution of the thoughts of their time”? (2017, I/5: 60)

I think the best way to read these passages is as implying a fairly prosaic claim about the production and distribution of texts and the like. This is in keeping with the polemically materialist character of the entire manuscript, in which “spirit” is derived from its beginnings in “agitated layers of air, sounds” (2017, I/5: 30). The regulation of thought by the dominant is the regulation of the printing presses, the libraries, the universities, etc., and nothing more. The subordination of the thought of the dominated is the subjection of their speech and writing to censorship, prohibition, illiteracy, and the stultification produced by a life of labor under conditions which allow for few letters. That Marx and Engels are not thinking of anything more than this is indicated, above all, by the fact that they never deny the emergence of revolutionary thought. This emergence is subject to the same condition as is the thought of the dominant class: a basis in the social production of life. “The existence of revolutionary thoughts in a particular epoch,” they write, “already presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class” (2017, I/5: 61–62).

The ruling ideas are not ideology, and neither are they “a useful weapon of class rule” (Rudé 1980: 17). They are merely indicators of who rules and how, signs to be deciphered. The notion that a crucial part of class domination consists in the dominant class “imposing its own fantasies and ‘false reality’ on the subject class” is not, therefore, a Marxian or Engelsian notion at all. Neither is the notion that, “to end its subjection and break through the ‘false reality’ that capitalism had imposed on it, the proletariat … must develop a ‘true’ consciousness, or class consciousness, peculiar to itself” (Rudé 1980: 17). According to Marx and Engels, protagonism-ideology is an ineffectual and mystified attempt at self-emancipation. It puts into practice the belief that servitude is voluntary because servitude is primarily in the head, that education is the primary means of freeing the mind, and that the rest will follow. Marx and Engels’s critique of ideology is precisely that servitude is not voluntary but necessary, not in the head but in the reproduction of life. It is not underpinned by the “second nature” of the superstructure, but is rooted in the nature of society as the interdependent production and reproduction of human life. Humans are not born free and in the truth, but are born into a bondage from which we might work ourselves to freedom only by a transformation of the material basis of the social world.

Even though it is not what Marx and Engels meant by ideology, however, I think the notion of a false consciousness that impedes the self-emancipation of the oppressed classes is a natural outgrowth of the Marxist project. This is not due to any argument Marx or Engels made, but due to the fact that the false consciousness thesis is a natural outgrowth of any politics oriented by self-emancipation. Marxism just happens to be the most influential political project of that sort, the project that seeded a hundred other movements with language, analyses, and bit of received revolutionary wisdom.

In order to trace the emergence of false consciousness, we must turn to Leninism, the point at which Marxism grappled with the special collective action problems involved in self-emancipation and formulated, even before it was named, the concept of false-consciousness. The practical problems confronted by a Marxist politics of self-emancipation generated a concept of “ideological false consciousness,” which then came to be associated – retrospectively and incorrectly – with Marx and Engels’s employment of the terms “ideology” and “false consciousness.” This procedure – finding a textual hook in Marx and Engels’s writings to hang a practical problem on – ended up generating a truly perverse result: the tradition of ideology critique born from the Marxist tradition is a perfect example of the protagonism Marx and Engels criticized in the original ideology.


5. The birth of false consciousness

Lenin has become synonymous with vanguardism, substitutionism, and the replacement of democracy by party discipline, but he was as committed a partisan of self-emancipation as the world has seen. This contention will raise some eyebrows. The image of Lenin as dictator and planner extraordinaire is deeply ingrained. James Scott is echoing received wisdom when he associates Lenin with a “design for the construction of the revolution” every bit as authoritarian and “high-modernist” as “Le Corbusier’s design for the construction of the modern city” (2008: 147). Like an architect’s designs, Scott claims, Lenin’s plans are to be realized in the “inert materials” of “‘the masses’ or ‘the proletariat,’” who seem to bring nothing “to the revolutionary project beyond the raw material they represent” (2008: 154–55).

The basis of Scott’s interpretation is Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, written in 1903. The answer to the titular question of Lenin’s pamphlet is to build “an all-Russian political newspaper.” This should already be a hint that Scott’s understanding of Lenin is a bit odd. How does a plan for a political newspaper amount to a “design for the construction of a revolution”?[24] But, of course, Scott is building on a well-established tradition of portraying Lenin – and What Is to Be Done? in particular – as concerned above all with “the issue of the masses’ political inertia” (Ascher 1988: 37). Lenin is actually concerned, however, with precisely the opposite: the inertia of self-proclaimed revolutionaries in the face of a spontaneous uprising by the workers and peasants of Russia. It is the masses’ activity – far in advance of anything revolutionary activists can muster – that provokes Lenin to articulate the matrix of the theory of ideology as false consciousness: the necessity of ideological struggle. Lenin’s idea and practice of ideological struggle is what provokes the two classic formulations of the relationship between ideology and self-emancipation, the class-consciousness theory of Lukács and the hegemony theory of Gramsci.

György Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, made the absence of a correct ideology into the only obstacle standing between the proletariat and complete emancipation, and this became the inspiration for a conception of false consciousness as normative error, which would be developed by the Frankfurt School of critical theory, until it finally petered out in the Habermasian notion of performative contradiction. Three years after Lukács’s book, Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by the fascist government of Italy. In prison, reflecting on Lenin’s revolutionary practice, he would develop his own account of hegemony, according to which the dominant class is able to secure the resignation, distraction, and even consent of the dominated to the extent that it is able to provide – or portray itself convincingly as providing – fairly steady material gains and to buy the active support of “bystander” groups in society. This account, as close as one can get to a macro-social development of La Boétie’s conception of voluntary servitude, was supplemented by Althusser’s understanding of the recruitment of individuals into forms of agency, and has given rise to a much more promising approach to ideology. The present section will develop Lenin’s understanding of ideological conflict, and the following sections will show how it was interpreted by Lukács as a theory of class consciousness, how this model descended into the ideology critique of the Frankfurt School, and how the Gramscian-Althusserian line of interpretation provides an alternative.

It is crucial to remember that Marxists of Lenin’s generation had no access to the manuscripts on “the German ideology,” which were sitting in a box in SPD archives from the death of Engels until David Ryazonov found them in 1923. Ryazonov published parts of the manuscripts in 1926,[25] and the entirety of them, as Die deutsche Ideologie, in 1932 (Johnson 2022: 144–45). Thus, the formulators of the theory of ideology as false consciousness had no access to Marx and Engels’s discussion of ideology as superstructure idealism or protagonism. Lenin never saw these texts. Lukács published History and Class Consciousness just as Ryazonov was discovering them. Gramsci went into prison just as the first portions were published in German.

Therefore, when these authors discuss ideology, they are basing their use of the word almost entirely on Marx’s two uses in the 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, two uses in the Manifesto, one use in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and five uses in Capital, together with Engels’s more substantial discussion in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. This goes a long way towards explaining the almost complete disconnect between Marx and Engels’s use of the term and the Marxist and post-Marxist debates about the theory of ideology.

Of particular importance was Marx’s claim in the 1859 Preface that, with regard to periods of social revolution, “it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” The first thing that Gramsci did in his prison notebooks was to translate two short texts of Marx into Italian: the “Theses on Feuerbach” and the 1859 Preface.[26] In his translation of the line above, as Jan Rehmann notes, Gramsci translated “ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out” as “ideological forms on which terrain [nel cui terreno] men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out” (2014: 118). According to Rehmann, this signals Gramsci’s refusal to treat ideologies as “mere forms of consciousness,” and his commitment to the notion that ideologies are “an ‘objective and effective reality,’ the terrain of ‘superstructures’” (2014: 118). This dividing line between ideology as consciousness and ideology as superstructure will be crucial for the discussion that follows, but for now I want merely to emphasize the commonality between the two: conflict. The Leninist approach to ideology read Marx’s line from 1859 as an injunction to become conscious of the revolutionary struggle underway and to fight it out in ideological struggle.

Lenin’s argument in What Is to Be Done? is nearly the opposite of the standard picture. Rather than concerning himself with how to shape and direct an inert mass of workers, or with “the danger of spontaneity” among the workers (Scott 2008: 155), Lenin’s concern is that the “spontaneous” or elementary aspects of working class resistance are vulnerable, both to the power of bosses and landlords, and to outside meddling by the bourgeois and tsarist press and other agents of influence.[27] When workers begin to agitate for improvements in wages, working conditions, and treatment on the job, their efforts attract the attention and speech of those who want to lead them “‘along the line of least resistance,’” into a form of trade unionism that believed that “adding a kopeck to the rouble is nearer and more to be valued than any socialism or any politics” (in Lih 2008: 711, 707). Elementary organizing is also vulnerable to “the Zubatovs of the world who drag it along the line of a priest/gendarme ‘ideology’” (in Lih 2008: 711).[28]

In the face of this vulnerability, Lenin thought it irresponsible of socialists to wring their hands over the fact that they may not be workers themselves or to think that they should not themselves “interfere” in the process of class formation and struggle. Lenin dubbed this passive attitude on the part of socialists – the belief that a commitment to working class self-emancipation implied leaving the workers alone to find their own path to freedom, or, at most, aiding them in their local, economic struggles – “bowing to spontaneity.” His point was that leaving the workers alone to find their own way to freedom was also leaving them at the mercy of their more powerful oppressors. The duty of solidarity with the oppressed implies also a duty to do everything you can to figure out and help to implement a political strategy that can actually lead to their self-emancipation. A hands-off approach on the part of socialists, after all, would not imply that the monarchists, reactionaries, and bourgeois liberals would also take a hands-off approach. It would mean “leav[ing] the field of activity” to the opponents of emancipation (in Lih 2008: 711).

This leads Lenin to make some of his most controversial claims. Quoting Karl Kautsky, the recognized dean of the SPD, the most important social-democratic mass party in the world, Lenin affirmed:

Modern socialist awareness can emerge only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. In fact, modern economic science is as much a condition of socialist production as modern, say, technology. The proletariat, even if it wanted to, cannot create either the one or the other: both emerge from the modern social process. The carrier of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia (Kautsky’s emphasis): modern socialism emerges in the heads of individual members of this stratum and then is communicated by them to proletarians who stand out due to their mental development, who in turn bring it into the class struggle of the proletariat where conditions allow. In this way, socialist awareness is something brought in to the class struggle of the proletariat from without, and not something that emerges from the class struggle in elemental fashion.[29]

Lenin clarifies in a footnote:

This does not mean, of course, that workers do not participate in this working­ out [of a socialist awareness]. But they participate not qua workers, but qua theoreticians of socialism – as Proudhons and Weitlings. In other words, they participate only insofar as they succeed to a greater or lesser extent in attaining a command of the knowledge of their century and in advancing that knowledge. In order for workers to succeed in doing this more often, it is necessary to occupy ourselves as much as possible in raising the level of purposiveness of workers in general – it is necessary for workers not to confine themselves within the narrow framework of ‘writing for workers’ but to study to achieve a greater and greater command of what is written for all. Instead of saying ‘confine themselves,’ we should really say ‘are confined’ – because the workers themselves read and want to read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only some (bad) intellectuals think that it is sufficient ‘for the workers’ to talk about factory conditions and chew over what has long been known. (In Lih 2008: 710)

Unfortunately, professors of political science don’t read the footnotes, it seems, since Scott takes Lenin to be saying that socialism is an alien doctrine that must be instilled into workers otherwise innocent of it, whose “own history and values … will lead the working class in the wrong direction unless they are replaced” (2008: 150). Instead, Lenin is arguing something more prosaic and reasonable: that working fifty or sixty hours a week in terrible conditions for starvation wages, while it gives you many grievances and reasons to protest, does not allow you much time or wherewithal to figure out how the world might be recast so that you don’t have to – that no one has to – be trapped in that position any longer.

Nonetheless, it is this prosaic and reasonable argument that contains all of the elements of the false consciousness thesis. Lenin believes that the workers’ vital interests are at stake in the fight for socialism, that socialism will mean freedom and dignity and plenty, and that “the entire present-day social system” – not only but especially in Russia – “is built on looting and oppression” (in Lih 2008: 724). He also believes that only the working classes themselves – the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry – can end this looting and oppression, first, by aiding the bourgeoisie and the liberal nobility in overthrowing the tsarist autocracy, and then, in a second step, by taking the entire political administration, and all of the estates and factories, into their own hands. But this course of action requires a massive concerted effort, on a national scale – indeed, an international scale – for a goal that may take decades to realize, and against the opposition of an entrenched and powerful enemy with command over the army, navy, and police apparatus.

In other words, although the achievement of socialism would, according to Lenin, serve the interests of the vast majority, the fight for socialism would also imperil and harm the interests of many workers. To fight against the tsar and for socialism, workers must risk their jobs, their homes, their lives, and their families – everything tangible and near at hand – for the sake of something uncertain, abstract, and far away.

This conflict of interests between the emancipatory interests of the oppressed and their immediate material interests, or between their reasons for getting free and their reasons for getting by, is what makes ideological struggle – theory, propaganda, agitation, organizing – so critically important.

This is why Lenin thinks an all-Russian political newspaper is what is to be done. Only by connecting local and minor indignities and affronts, such as “factory abuses, … police violence [or] the government’s actions that are so biased toward the capitalists,” to “the area of the relations of all classes and [social] strata to the state and to the government – the area of the interrelations between all classes,” can the social democrats make the case that the emancipatory interests ought to win out (in Lih 2008: 745–46). Only a national political paper, Lenin thought, could aspire to be “a people’s tribune,” which “can respond to each and every manifestation of abuse of power and oppression, wherever it occurs, whatever stratum or class it concerns, [which] can generalise all these manifestations into one big picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation, [which] is able to use each small affair to set before everybody his socialist convictions and his democratic demands and to explain to each and all the world-historical significance of the liberation struggle of the proletariat.”

This project of agitating and organizing among an oppressed group, on behalf of their interest in emancipation, posits, of necessity, a distinction between the commitment to that emancipatory interest and commitment to other, more immediate and local interests. Lenin, following SPD usage, called the former – the goal of socialist agitation and organizing – “social democratic consciousness,” but also “class political consciousness” or “class political awareness.” Kautsky had referred to this as the proletariat’s “awareness of its position and … awareness of its task” (Lih 2008: 710). It descends to us, for the most part, as class consciousness.

It fell to György Lukács to formulate the opposition between class consciousness and false consciousness, but the name matters less than the thing itself. False consciousness is just the difference between your interests as you actually perceive them – your empirically experienced desires and goals – and the emancipatory interests of the class to which you belong, or the distance between what you want and what would be rational from the perspective of the collective self-emancipation of those in your social position. As we have seen, Lenin associates this distance, in the case of the Russian workers, with the extent to which “the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie” has gone unchallenged by the activity of committed socialists (in Lih 2008: 711). Thus, false consciousness is equivalent to ideological subjection, or to serving the interests of your oppressors rather than the emancipatory interests of your own class.

This formulation has a reasonable core – an indispensable core, even – but is susceptible to two significant dangers. It is not only reasonable but unavoidable that activists for self-emancipation will both differentiate the emancipatory interest of the dominated from their other interests and urge the dominated to subordinate their quotidian and worldly  interests to their interest in being free. Being dominated, after all, gives the dominated good reasons to comply, to go along, to keep their heads down, and to cooperate with their dominators. To engage in a collective struggle for self-emancipation requires discounting those reasons. It requires elevating the interest in freedom to the premier position, and this means also elevating the cause of the dominated group as a whole over your personal desires and goals. It also necessitates increasing the social costs of compliance and cooperation with the dominant. The vocabulary developed for those who prioritize the goods that can be obtained from the dominant over the common emancipatory interest of the dominated provides a vantage point for spying this process: toady, creeper, sycophant, bootlicker, flunkey, stooge, brown-noser, scab, tool, dupe. These are, in effect, the vernacular names for those subject, in Ecclesiastical Latin, to “false consciousness” or “ideological subjection.”

The two dangers lurking in Lenin’s formulation of this elementary point are closely related. As dangers, they are probably inherent in the problem of self-emancipation, but Lenin’s formulation amplifies them in a particular way. The first danger is that of forgetting that our interest in freedom is itself instrumental. Freedom from domination is a basic good for human beings because domination is a burden on our other desires and plans. Hence, subordinating our quotidian interests to our interest in freedom can only ever make sense as an exception. The whole reason we ought to want to be free is because freedom would allow us to get on with living our lives as we think is best, without having to navigate the extraneous motivations generated by the power of the dominant. Freedom is not the end of human life, human life is the end of freedom. Thinking the opposite inflates our interest in freedom into something coextensive with or even constitutive of our humanity itself. It thereby inflates our interest in freedom into the moral demand to see the world from the purely human standpoint of “the world-historical consciousness, the awakening of humanity to self-consciousness,” and the struggle against domination into “a means by which humanity liberates itself” (Lukács 1972: 6).

The second danger is not found in the concept of false consciousness itself but in something that easily goes unexamined in its counterpart, class consciousness in its political, paradigmatically socialist form. False consciousness is a many-splendored thing, full of variation and detail. There are a million ways to fall away from “the narrow, steep path of correct action,” a million “gesture[s] of solidarity with the existing order” (Lukács 1972: 6). Since the domination against which people fight defines the contours of social space, moving through that space in any direction means following those contours, and the compromises with the dominant can be catalogued endlessly. There is a corresponding tendency to represent socialist or class consciousness as if it were one definite thing, a pinpoint opposed to this manifold of compromises and complicities.

Hence, Lenin claims that “any disparagement of socialist ideology, any distancing from it signals in and of itself a strengthening of bourgeois ideology,” as if socialist ideology were one thing with obvious boundaries and a clear location, from which any distance could be observed and measured (in Lih 2008: 710). Likewise, Lukács’s “narrow, steep path of correct action” is “prescribed by the philosophy of history which alone leads to the goal,” as if this could be discerned (1972: 6). To be sure, Lukács realizes that, “by the very nature of the matter, we can only talk in terms of a possibility” of realizing emancipation by our actions, but he clearly thinks of this possibility only in terms of whether or not a policy will end up succeeding at a particular juncture, not whether or not it is the right policy. Otherwise, it would make no sense for him to claim that, “for the individual who seizes this possibility” there can be “no choice and no hesitation” – “if,” that is, “he is a socialist” (1972: 10). What it is to be a socialist is treated as if it were self-clarifying, and as if those committed to self-emancipation faced no real burdens of judgment, but only burdens of conscience.

To an important extent, both of these dangers are simply the occupational hazards of activists and organizers. Those who have subjectively committed themselves to the cause of emancipation – who have dedicated their lives and subordinated all their other interests to the emancipatory interest – are as inclined to self-justification as anyone else. They are also inclined to magnify the stakes of disagreements with one another. When these two inclinations reinforce one another and are not checked by anything else, the result is something like Lukács’s conviction that “the Communist Party must be the primary incarnation of the realm of freedom; [that] above all, the spirit of comradeliness, of true solidarity, and of self-sacrifice must govern everything it does” (1972: 69). Here, self-sacrifice is identified with freedom itself, and the subjective commitment of the revolutionary is transformed into the aim of the revolution – as if the aim of revolution were to make revolutionaries rather than to make revolutionaries unnecessary. This is a perverse betrayal of the entire project of self-emancipation, since it turns our interest in being free into a self-refuting interest in being without interests.

It is also a return to La Boétie’s three principles of subjection. First, the sphere of the economy is reconceived as a second nature, leading people to act in mystified ways at odds with true humanity and true rationality. Second, consent is manufactured by the ruling class (and by the alienation of the proletariat’s own activity) through the manipulation of incentives and ideologies. Finally, opportunism is an ever-present danger to the revolutionary party, since everyone is susceptible to being tempted by immediate and personal gains. And, just as in La Boétie, “where the danger lies, also grows the saving power.” The elitism of the Leninist tradition is not rooted in any disdain for the spontaneous self-activity of the masses, but rather in its exclusive attention to the actions and inclinations of the politically conscious few, who can decide the fate of a class by either their steadfastness or their opportunism. It may well be necessary to inflate the importance of the spirit of comradeliness, solidarity, and self-sacrifice, precisely in order to impress upon the revolutionary activists a sense of honor and commitment, a new form of the ancient voluntary servitude, by which promising young people devote themselves to the party and the cause. This strategic gambit, however, risks undermining the robustness of Marxist social theory by inflating the importance and efficacy of voluntary action and ideological commitment. It may even endanger the very idea of self-emancipation by casting revolutionaries as heroic founders and guardians of the people.

Nonetheless, it is a significant overreaction to these dangers to conclude, as Michael Rosen does, that “it follows from the theory of ideology that the working class’s own perception of what would further its interests is distorted and inadequate.” Distinguishing “between what people actually believe and what they ought to believe” regarding their interests is simply unavoidable, even for liberals like Destutt de Tracy and Gaus. It is not dependent upon the concept of ideology as false consciousness, nor is it any special inducement towards “acting on behalf of” people rather than as their “representative” (Rosen 1996: 271–72). The false consciousness thesis is, moreover, a reasonable application of the distinction between desires and interests to a context of domination. The dangers lie further downstream.


6. False consciousness and class consciousness

It was Lukács, more than anyone, who turned Lenin’s political practice of ideological struggle into a theory of false consciousness, and it was the Frankfurt School, primarily, that turned Lukács’s theory, which pertained to exactly one class, into a generic theoretical practice of ideology critique. Both of these operations involved highly-complex series of arguments and were embedded in discursive contexts that are hard to reconstruct. Therefore, what follows falls far short of a demonstration of the claims I am advancing. In particular, there are two reasonable concerns that must be acknowledged. First, Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness was only posthumously inducted into the Ideologiekritik hall of fame. “Ideology” is not a central term in the book, and neither “reification” nor “class consciousness” can be reduced to ideology. Second, the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory was also much broader and more heterogeneous and experimental than a focus on Ideologiekritik might suggest. However, neither of these concerns need deter us. The question guiding this essay is how theories of ideology have emerged from and might inform the project of self-emancipation, and this question is a cleaver not a scalpel: it cuts through this history to reveal a facet, rather than entering into it to access its inner anatomy. It is because Lukács sought to theorize Lenin’s practice that his writings from 1919-23 produce a theory of ideological false consciousness, and it is because the Frankfurt School sought to reconsider self-emancipation from the ground up that they produced a practice of ideology critique. An outline of this trajectory emerges from a few reference points.

The final months and aftermath of World War I saw numerous socialist and communist revolutions in eastern and central Europe, all of which collapsed or were defeated. The Finnish Civil War ended with the defeat of the Reds on April 1918. The November Revolution in Germany gave rise to the short-lived council republics in Bavaria, Bremen, and Saxony, and to the abortive Spartacist uprising in Berlin.[30] By August 1919, however, all of these were decisively put down; uprisings and rebellions would continue through 1923, but these were increasingly pale imitations of the events of 1918-19, and the Weimar Republic, while it remained shaky, was never in real danger from the Left. The Hungarian council republic, with Lukács as education commissioner, lasted one hundred thirty-three days in the middle of 1919. Its Slovakian adjunct lasted only three weeks. The workers’ councils of Italy’s Biennio Rosso were disowned by the Italian Socialist Party and the socialist union, the CGL, and so the only attempt at a council republic, the month-long Labin Republic, came in response to fascist attacks in Istria in 1921.

The Communist Party of Hungary was founded by Béla Kun and others in October 1918. Lukács joined in November. By February 1919, he was a member of the central committee. By June he was the education commissioner in Kun’s government, leading the nationalization of private schools, the extension of general education, and the revision of university curriculum. After the collapse of the Hungarian Red Army, which was divided between nationalist and communist aspirations, Lukács helped organize the underground party before fleeing to Austria. He narrowly avoided extradition to Horthy’s regime, and the following period of exile saw his most influential theoretical writings.

It is commonplace to say that the failures of the period – from the SPD’s support of the war through the inability of communists to expand the revolution to the consolidation of an anti-Soviet European bloc – animate Lukács’s theory of 1919-23. This is too easy, though, since the writing of Tactics and Ethics are impelled more by the Bolshevik success of 1917 than by anything else, and there is no theoretical break between these militant texts and those of History and Class Consciousness. Success and failure alike animate these writings in the direction of, in Lukács’s own later, self-critical words, “a messianic sectarianism” that proposes “the most radical methods” of resolving every issue (1971: xii). “The greatest tragedy of the workers’ movement,” wrote Lukács in 1920, “has always been its inability to tear itself completely free from the ideological matrix of capitalism” (1972: 67).[31] This diagnosis presupposes, however, the thesis that it also reinforces, that only “a total break with every institution and mode of life stemming from the bourgeois world” could “foster an undistorted class consciousness in the vanguard, in the Communist parties and in the Communist youth organizations” (Lukács 1971: xiv).

This total break with the bourgeois world can only arise imminently. Indeed, it can only arise from the very center of the bourgeois world itself: the factory where commodities are used to make commodities. According to Lukács, “capitalist society in its totality” can only be understood on the basis of “the structure of commodity-relations” (1971: 83). This structure is revealed by Marx in the fetishism section near the beginning of Capital, and its “essence” is “that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace” of its basis in human interrelations (1971: 83). Capitalist society is commodified through-and-through, according to Lukács, such that “every expression of life” is permeated by this fetish character (1971: 84). “The personal nature of economic relations” is hidden away by the “non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, and humanity is locked in “servitude to the ‘second nature’ so created” (1971: 86–87).

At the heart of this “reified” society stands the factory where commodities are made. Its “internal organization” contains, Lukács believes, “the whole structure of capitalist society” in miniature (1971: 90). Lukács has two stories about why this is so, neither very convincing. First, à la Adam Smith,[32] if every social relation abroad in capitalist society is structured by the commodity – rationalized, economized, subject to cost-benefit analysis – then this is nowhere more true and more observable than in the factory.[33] The factory is, as it were, the “concentrated form” of society, in which its essential, structuring processes are visible to the eye and palpable in their intensity (Lukács 1971: 90). Lukács’s second story is a causal one. If every social relation abroad in capitalist society is structured by commodities, and commodities are created in a capitalist factory, then, by transitivity, every social relation can be said to originate in the capitalist factory. “The fate of the worker becomes the fate of society as a whole,” since the process by which the worker’s “own labor becomes something objective and independent of him, something that controls him by virtue of an autonomy alien to man,” is also the process by which “a world of objects and relations between things springs into being” (1971: 91, 87).

This causal story is the more important one for Lukács, since it contains, he thinks, the key to the possibility that the working class could “break with every institution and mode of life stemming from the bourgeois world.” Since the workers of that world, by making the commodities of that world, in fact make also all of the social relations of that world, the working class has a unique “ability to see society from the center, as a coherent whole” (Lukács 1971: 69). The proletariat, considered collectively, possesses a virtual maker’s knowledge of the whole bourgeois world. Everything stems from their activity and, so, if they can find new ways of relating to one another, sharing their knowledge and powers directly with one another, they could remake the world entirely. Moreover, since they make the whole world as commodified labor-power, Lukács thinks they have a privileged access to the commodity structure itself. As commodities that make commodities, the proletariat is, in Lukács’s famous phrase, “able to discover within itself on the basis of its life-experience the identical subject-object” (1971: 149). That is, “the self-understanding of the proletariat” is supposed, by Lukács, to be “simultaneously the objective understanding of the nature of society” (1971: 149).

This, the standpoint of the proletariat, is not any sort of empirical description of what workers know or think or want. Lukács’s analysis is supposed to point towards “the objective theory of class consciousness,” which is only “the theory of its objective possibility” (1971: 79).[34] The problem, as always, is “whether it is actually possible to make the objective possibility of class consciousness into a reality,” and this “ideological crisis” is the highest priority for communist militants” (1971: 79). The situation of the individual proletarian – or individual group of proletarians – exerts selective pressure to prioritize achievable local goals, such as better pay and better job security, over long-term and high-risk strategies like mobilizing for revolution.

Lukács knows this. He highlights it. He locates “in the center of proletarian class consciousness … an antagonism [Widerspruch] between momentary interest and ultimate goal” (1971: 73). But this just leads him to double down: “class consciousness is identical with neither the psychological consciousness of individual members of the proletariat, nor with the (mass-psychological) consciousness of the proletariat as a whole; but it is, on the contrary, the sense, become conscious, of the historical role of the class” (1971: 73). In other words, the rationally appropriate strategy for anyone located in the class position of the proletariat is to recognize the long-term untenability of reforms to capitalism and to embrace revolutionary socialism.

This is too convenient by half. It simply presupposes that the proletariat makes the whole world, and will make the whole world consciously just to the extent that individual proletarians become psychologically conscious of belonging to the class that makes the whole world. Lukács’s construction of class consciousness reduces, therefore, to a pure morality, in the sense Hegel gives to Moralität – a proper self-relation or conscience – that is supposed to guarantee right action. This recapitulates a major theme of Tactics and Ethics, where Lukács explicitly criticizes Hegel for letting “the system of material, spiritual and social goods” – the sphere of ethical substance and objective right – displace and subsume “the most primitive, universal psychological facts: conscience and the sense of responsibility” (1972: 7). “Hegel’s system is devoid of ethics,” and this is one of “the dangerous aspects of the Hegelian legacy in Marxism,” a danger against which only class consciousness can preserve it (1972: 6–7).

Imputed proletarian class consciousness is simply the rational-moral capacity recreate the totality of human society, the “higher power” which must replace “the blind power of economic forces” and which “corresponds more exactly to the dignity of man” (Lukács 1972: 5). Marxism, as a method, provides “the knowledge of the whole and of the whole as a process,” or knowledge of “the totality of human society” and of “what the development of this totality means for the proletariat in terms of tasks” (1972: 93–94). However, this “penetration of all fields of knowledge” is, at present, “still only a demand posed to science: a demand which can be fulfilled only in and through the revolution” (1972: 94). As they become psychologically conscious of their power, workers form “revolutionary workers’ councils,” which embody “the economic and political defeat of reification,” since they tend to abolish all separations: “the bourgeois separation of the legislature, administration, and judiciary,” as well as “the fragmentation of the proletariat in time and space” and the separation between “economics and politics” (Lukács 1971: 80). In short, the real proletarians, as soon as they are really conscious of being proletarian, will act in a really proletarian manner to consciously and methodically create the totality of society as a unity – and thereby also to cancel their existence as proletarians by eliminating classes altogether.

This is perfect example of what Hegel criticized in Moralität. It posits a form of consciousness that sees all, knows all, and acts only and always for the sake of humanity as a whole, and claims that the effectiveness of this consciousness “can only come about as the product of the – free – action of the proletariat itself” (Lukács 1971: 29). That the proletariat is capable of the conscious and unified creation of the social totality – the total conscious production of society – is simply a matter to be taken on faith. Any failure to rationally produce this self-conscious society is a failure to achieve the self-canceling proletarian class consciousness. To ask how this consciousness proceeds to determine its acts is to admit that one does not possess this consciousness.

Lukács presumes that Marx’s theoretical critique of political economy also has the effect of making transparent to the proletariat their demiurge-like position at the center of society. In proletarian class consciousness, conscious self-justification and self-understanding catches its own tail and turns thereby into a prospective knowledge of how to transform society in accordance with human intentions. The owl of Minerva is reborn as the eagle of Zeus, all-seeing and provident. A new ideology is born – communist ideology – but one with a distinct advantage over Destutt de Tracy’s bourgeois ideology: it can actually grasp the totality of social relations and thereby transform social relations at will. Like Destutt de Tracy’s ideology, Lukács’s ideology issues in a pedagogy, but it aims at an education in “the moral mission” and “spiritual leadership” of the Communist Party (Lukács 1972: 12–17, 49–52, 64–70). Without doing away with opportunism in fact, communist morality provides assurances that opportunism is becoming irrelevant. Every other proletarian is situated just as we are, and every other proletarian’s real needs are also expressed in communist morality. So long as we have faith that the party embodies the “consciousness of the realm of freedom” (Lukács 1971: 54), we have evidence of what we cannot see. Class consciousness undergirds or guarantees that “the infinitely painful path of the proletarian revolution, with its many reverses, its constant return to its starting point,” nonetheless “leads out of the impasses of capitalism,” by making the contradiction between necessity and freedom irrelevant for practical purposes (Lukács 1972: 68).

On Lukács’s understanding, communist society can only exist if, rather than mistaking “the actual psychological state of consciousness of proletarians for the class consciousness of the proletariat,” we “regard the particular interest and the struggle to achieve it as a means of education for the final battle whose outcome depends on closing the gap between the psychological consciousness and the imputed one” (1971: 74). Communist morality is an attempt to “educate the whole of humanity in freedom and self-discipline,” but also, crucially, to educate “its members from the very beginning,” and to do so by “purging the party … based on ‘a constant stepping-up of demands in relation to real communist achievements’” (Lukács 1972: 68).[35] Each of these activities encourages and depends upon the others, and the logical structure that emerges is, like all triangular constructions, very stable and robust. Communist morality seeks to overcome voluntary servitude – ideological subjection – by going all in.


7. Ideology critique as ideology

Mid-twentieth-century social theory took Lukács’s hypothesis seriously, but also took a generic humanism seriously enough to generalize the hypothesis to all human agents. What was in Lukács’s hands a partisan ideology of communist militancy became an omni-historical fact of human life: the social construction of reality.[36] When this is operationalized, however, it becomes immediately apparent that, rather than the transparency and conscious control promised by Lukács, the result is an ever-renewed and massive opacity of social institutions. Made by “us” and re-makeable by “us,” they constantly confront us as made by others and resistant to any change we can initiate. With the generalization of ideology, “the level of the sociology of knowledge is reached – the understanding that no human thought … is immune to the ideologizing influences of its social context” (Berger and Luckmann 1990: 9). The social world becomes the world of meaning, and ideological division becomes the interminable contest between different meanings of the world.

This move did not require doing any great violence to Lukács’s argument.[37] The standpoint of the proletariat, after all, was found not in the heads of factory operatives and farm hands but in Marx’s Capital. “Among Hegelian Marxists like Lukács,” Habermas rightly noted, there was no strong commitment to the determination of consciousness by economic practice, or even to the weaker thesis that economic life places limits on the possibilities for cultural or intellectual life. Rather, “the concept of the social totality excludes a model of levels,” such as Marx and Engels’s model of base and superstructure. Instead of levels, base and superstructure are interpreted as essence and appearance, with the economic structure “being conceived dialectically as the essence that comes to existence in the observable appearances” (1979: 143). Thus, Lukács’s theory of ideology could be “assimilated in the form of the Sociology of Knowledge” without social theorists having to bother themselves with the analysis of production, exploitation, and exchange (Habermas 1973: 204).

The significant result of Lukács’s reconstruction of Marx and Lenin, along this line of reception, is simply that, in Horkheimer’s formulation, “​​the world which is given to the individual and which he must accept and take into account is, in its present and continuing form, a product of the activity of society as a whole” (1982: 200). For the critical theory of Horkheimer and his colleagues, what differentiates the working class is not necessarily that they have a special role in producing the social world, but that they are on the receiving end of a social world “in which the extreme development of technology has made the masses in principle superfluous as producers in their own country” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002: 121). According to Horkheimer and Adorno,

The gradations in the standard of living correspond very precisely to the degree by which classes and individuals inwardly adhere to the system. Managers can be relied on; even the minor employee Dagwood, who lives in reality no less than in the comic strip, is reliable. But anyone who goes hungry and suffers from cold, especially if he once had good prospects, is a marked man. He is an outsider, and – with the occasional exception of the capital crime – to be an outsider is the gravest guilt. (2002: 120–21)

The poor, the oppressed, the excluded, and the critical are all in a similar situation. They cannot accept that the way things are is the way things have to be, or the best that they can be.

And yet the poor, the oppressed, and the excluded do accept it, practically speaking, since they do not, by and large, work to transform society. The critical theorist situates herself in this gap between the acceptable and the accepted and, rather than asking how “one or another abuse” can be eliminated, takes as her guideline the intuition that all such abuses are “necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized” as a whole (Horkheimer 1982: 207). This intuition is given a recognizably Leninist formulation by Horkheimer and Adorno:

Although the abundance of goods which could be produced everywhere and simultaneously makes the struggle for raw materials and markets seem ever more anachronistic, humanity is nevertheless divided into a small number of armed power blocs. They compete more pitilessly than the firms involved in the anarchy of commodity production ever did, and strive toward mutual liquidation. The more senseless the antagonism, the more rigid the blocs. Only the total identification of the population with these monstrosities of power, so deeply imprinted as to have become second nature and stopping all the pores of consciousness, maintains the masses in the state of absolute apathy which makes them capable of their miraculous achievements. As far as any decisions are still left to individuals, they are effectively decided in advance. (2002: 169)

Horkheimer fleshes out this “second nature,” which maintains apathy by “stopping all the pores of consciousness,” in the following terms:

The individual as a rule must simply accept the basic conditions of his existence as given and strive to fulfill them; he finds his satisfaction and praise in accomplishing as well as he can the tasks connected with his place in society and in courageously doing his duty despite all the sharp criticism he may choose to exercise in particular matters. … The separation between individual and society in virtue of which the individual accepts as natural the limits prescribed for his activity is relativized in critical theory. The latter considers the overall framework which is conditioned by the blind interaction of individual activities (that is, the existent division of labor and the class distinctions) to be a function which originates in human action and therefore is a possible object of planful decision and rational determination of goals. (1982: 207)

The Frankfurt School generally follows this line of argument. What Lukács referred to as “the knowledge that social facts are not objects but relations between men” becomes, for the critical theorist, the knowledge that all social facts are norms. The realm of society is coextensive with the space of reasons. If social facts are norms, that means they exist for a reason, they serve some human purpose. The question becomes: do they exist as they are for good reasons, and are those reasons accessible and acceptable to all?

The legacy of ideology theory entails, however, that people’s presently expressed opinions and preferences are not dispositive. Although “the idea of a reasonable organization of society that will meet the needs of the whole community” is, according to Horkheimer, “immanent in human work” as such, this idea is not “correctly grasped by individuals or by the common mind,” and Marx and Engels were wrong to think that the special situation and interests of the proletariat would be a “guarantee of correct knowledge” of this idea (1982: 213). The proletariat is divided by the social structure itself, and their local perspectives and interests mean that, even for them, “the world superficially seems quite different than it really is” (Horkheimer 1982: 214).

Therefore, if critical theorists cannot simply ask people – including oppressed people – if social norms are rationally acceptable to them, then they need a theory that can play the role Capital played for Lukács: a theoretical exposition of the objective possibility of class consciousness, on the basis of which they can attempt “​​to hasten developments which will lead to a society without injustice” (Horkheimer 1982: 221). This hastening is equated by Horkheimer with the critical theorist’s task of “reduc[ing] the tension between his own insight and oppressed humanity in whose service he thinks” (1982: 221). The theory in question, then, must indicate how it is possible for the everyday consciousness of the oppressed and the enlightened consciousness of the critical theorist to be united. This objective theory of the possible unity of everyday and enlightened consciousness is developed most fully and most explicitly in Habermas’s account of communicative rationality.

Raymond Geuss has reconstructed the linkages between the early articulations of critical theory in the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse, and the development it underwent in the hands of Habermas.[38] As Geuss demonstrates, the central strand of continuity is a shared normative conception of power. For the Frankfurt School, Herrschaft is essentially voluntary in the Boétian sense. “‘Herrschaft,’” Geuss writes, “is power to exercise normative repression,” where “normative repression” is the “frustration of agents’ preferences which makes a claim to legitimacy that is accepted by those agents because of certain normative beliefs they hold” (1981: 16).

The dominated, on this account, consent to their domination, by definition.[39] More than this, they think their domination is right or good in some sense. As Geuss puts it, “repression is ‘normative’ if the agents are prevented from pursuing their interests by a set of normative beliefs they accept,” and Herrschaft is just the asymmetrical power of normative repression (1981: 34–35; emphasis added). The normative beliefs of the dominated, therefore, are the source of their frustration or repression. The claim of legitimacy, in other words, is not just a claim made by the dominant, but is accepted by the dominated.

This does not necessarily mean that the legitimacy belief is the basic normative belief, however. The dominated may consent to their domination and believe it to be good because it seems to them the most reasonable means of realizing an independently held normative belief. They may believe that God’s will should be done, and that mortal flesh is weak, and that this weakness requires, therefore, a firm government by a divinely ordained minister, and that the royal line of the Hohenzollerns happens to provide this needed government here and now. The legitimacy of Carol I is not basic to their moral worldview, and their joyous consent to his rule – and the consequent frustration of their pursuit of their own interests – is not entirely personalistic, but depends upon more fundamental moral beliefs, together with some basic factual judgments about the royal succession, etc.

Nonetheless, this is a very strong version of the voluntary servitude thesis. The normative beliefs of the dominated are the fundamental cause of the repression they experience. The dominated suffer from “false consciousness” and from unfreedom, but “the ‘unfree existence’” from which they suffer “is a form of self-imposed coercion,” since its “‘power’ or ‘objectivity’ derives only from the fact that the agents do not realize that it is self-imposed” (Geuss 1981: 58).

This last claim, that the objectivity of their unfreedom is self-imposed, must be expanded upon. Not only is ideological false consciousness the primary cause of the repression experienced by the dominated, it also gives rise to “real social oppression” that is “objective,” in the sense that a group of rational agents would arrive at a consensus judgment that it exists – i.e., it is not imaginary or ‘in the heads’ of the oppressed (Geuss 1981: 74, 72). In Habermas’s later formulation, the subsystems of the economy and the state “congeal into the ‘second nature’ of norm-free sociality that can appear as something in the objective world, as an objectified context of life” (1987: 183). The “objective power” of this second nature cannot be “automatically resolved by critical reflection” (Geuss 1981: 74). The dominant have an interest in the maintenance of the oppressive status quo, and “established social institutions” are not undone simply by people losing faith in their legitimacy (1981: 75).

However, the Frankfurt School – at least from the second generation on – is nonetheless committed to the notion that the objectivity of these social institutions and the conservative interests rooted in them are consequences of self-imposed ideological coercion. Even if “enlightenment does not automatically bring emancipation in the sense of freedom from the external coercion exercised by social institutions,” enlightenment is a prerequisite of freedom from external coercion because external coercion is the house that false consciousness built (Geuss 1981: 75). False consciousness has motivated the construction of an objective, institutional world, and this second nature will not be torn down by critical theory alone, but critical theory is a prerequisite to that tearing down, just as false consciousness was a prerequisite for the building.[40] Consciousness comes first, as a motive for action, in both cases.[41]

According to Geuss, the epistemic element of ideology critique is inseparable from – indeed, is fully constituted by – the normative element. Although “Ideologiekritik is not just a form of ‘moralizing criticism,’” – although it criticizes ideology for being false, and is, therefore, itself “a cognitive enterprise, a form of knowledge”(1981: 26) – this cognitive element of ideology critique turns out to be the articulation of the “optimal conditions” of “perfect knowledge and freedom” in which we could formulate our “true interests,” or the set of desires that “could be rationally integrated into a coherent ‘good life’” (1981: 48). Forst, who eschews any reference to “true interests,” grounds ideology critique in “a right to justification of social and political relations” that rules out any norms that “justify a social situation of asymmetry and subordination with bad reasons that could not be shared among free and equal justificatory agents in a practice of justification free from such asymmetry and distortion” (2015: 117). In either case, false consciousness is false because it comprises normative views about how we should live that we could not arrive at in a condition of perfect knowledge and freedom, and that we therefore cannot reflectively endorse here and now.[42]

Therefore, the Frankfurt School reasserts the critique of ideology, but not by pointing to the reality of social dynamics that frustrate our efforts at conscious control and that falsify our normative ideals. Instead, ideology critique is the critique of every value, every meaning, by reference to a posited counterfactual ideal speech situation. Habermas would not describe this situation as Horkheimer did: “a state of affairs in which there will be no exploitation or oppression, in which an all-embracing subject, namely self-aware mankind, exists, and in which it is possible to speak of a unified theoretical creation and a thinking that transcends individuals” (1982: 241). Nonetheless, the discourse theoretical invocation of “the procedures and presuppositions under which justifications can have the power to produce consensus” retains the same basic contours (Habermas 1979: 205). Our allegiance to this world – that is, this world’s empirical legitimacy – is undermined by the rational projection of another world, a world free of coercion, asymmetry, and temporal restraints, where rational conversation would be the only determinant of meaning and value.

The entire Marxian problematic has here been stood on its head. Marx and Engels’s criticism of “the German ideology” was that, like the French original, it sought to transform society by changing people’s minds so as to realize ideals that had been abstracted from the very social practices that frustrated those ideals. This project is, according to Marx and Engels, superstructure idealism or protagonism. By the time ideology critique arrives in Frankfurt, whatever frustrates our efforts at conscious control or falsifies our normative ideals is identified as itself ideological, or as the reified second nature that ideological justifications “eventually materialize into” (Forst 2015: 124). At the same time, the nonexistent society of voluntary and mutually-beneficial relations, together with the effort, here-and-now, to realize that world by means of the unforced force of the stronger argument is non-ideological. Ideology critique has taken the place of ideology, and collective self-emancipation has been whittled down to intersubjective self-enlightenment.


8. Ideology without false consciousness

Lenin’s practice of ideological struggle also received a second theoretical articulation, however, quite distinct from Lukács’s, in Antonio Gramsci’s Quaderni del carcere. This articulation is no less Hegelian than Lukács’s, but it resonates more with the Sittlichkeit or ethical life of Elements of the Philosophy of Right than with either its Moralität or the absolute knowing of the Phenomenology. It concerns itself with habits, institutions, and cultivation, rather than with consciousness, rationality, and validity claims.

The specificity of Gramsci’s approach stands out starkly in what would have been the first discussion of ideology that a francophone or anglophone reader of the Quaderni encountered: the discussion of Croce’s conception of ideology and politics in a note entitled “Politics as an autonomous science.”[43] Croce – akin to Lukács – associates ideology, including politics, with error, and traces error back to its origin in “passion,” understood in a Hegelian-dialectical sense as “the non-definitive character … of the term of the dialectic which the latter must transcend in its forward movement” (Gramsci 1971: 138). Gramsci counters that “Croce’s conception of politics/passion excludes parties, since it is not possible to think of an organized and permanent passion”; if there are permanent political passions, then they are not passions at all, but “rationality and deliberate reflection” (1971: 138–39). Gramsci aligns these terms with Marx’s base/superstructure model – as did Croce – in order to assert that what is passing and perishable, or what is merely the “apparent” surface of the social structure, is also necessary to that structure, and “becomes permanent action and gives birth to permanent organizations” (1971: 139).

The terms “apparent” and “appearance” … are the assertion of the perishable nature of all ideological systems, side by side with the assertion that all [such] systems have an historical validity, and are necessary (“Man acquires consciousness of social relations in the field of ideology”: is not this an assertion of the necessity and validity of “appearances”?) (1971: 138)

The parenthetical quotation is not a quotation at all, but an interpretive paraphrase of Marx’s claim in the 1859 Preface that the socially transformative conflict between the developed means of production and the existing relations of production comes to human consciousness and is fought out by people only in “legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms.”

Again, Gramsci’s interpretive translation of Marx’s claim makes clear his distinctive inheritance of the Leninist insistence on ideological struggle. In stark contrast to Lukács’s “economism and class reductionism,” Gramsci understood “the ideological not in terms of mere ideas, but rather as a material ensemble of hegemonic apparatuses in civil society,” a set of institutions (Rehmann 2014: 117). More fundamentally, it was Lukács’s conception of expressive totality, with the commodity structure as the essence of modern society and proletarian labor as the essence of the essence, that reduced ideology to a pure consciousness manifested in (or deviating from) correct ideas, and it is Gramsci’s reassertion of the “necessity and validity of ‘appearances’” that restores to the ideological its specific diversity and its political relevance as a field of operations. The “field” or “terrain” of ideology is, for Gramsci and those who follow him, the “material matrix of affirmations and sanctions” in which different ideologies compete with, clash with, and reinforce one another, by recruiting and deploying agents (Therborn 1999: 33).

The most important elaboration and development of Gramsci’s approach to ideology is the infamous theory of Althusser.[44] The most productive clarification and revision of Althusser’s theory is the criminally neglected[45] work of Göran Therborn. What emerges from this line of influence is not a new ideology critique, but rather a general theory of ideology as the space of reasons, the terrain where agency happens.[46] This theory is materialist, however, in that it understands normative beliefs not as motivating reasons for action but as retrospective, justificatory discourse. The reasons that motivate action are the institutionalized affirmations and sanctions that recruit or subjectify or qualify – more on those verbs in a second – agents.

I find this theory fruitful, but I recognize that its payoff – even its intelligibility – is not immediately apparent. The aim of this final section is to arrive at intelligibility. I can only gesture here at potential payoff by way of indicating the lines of research this approach opens onto. Unlike the Frankfurt School’s approach, which points only in the direction of moral self-clarification, the post-Gramscian account opens quite naturally onto the empirical study of domination.

One difficulty in discussing Althusser’s elaboration of the Gramscian account of ideology is that its reception has been massively overdetermined by the academic fights about structuralism and post-structuralism. On the one hand, many who were committed in one way or another to the explanatory priority of human agency took Althusser to be a structuralist and took structuralism to be identical with functionalism. As a result, Althusser was said to have “reduce[d] agency … to an ideological illusion,” such that, “individuals are not agents but rather raw material which ideology transforms into subjects ready to submit to their predestined role in the relations of production” (Callinicos 2006: 177–78).[47] On the other hand, those who were committed to following through the project of post-Althusserian French theory took Althusser to be too constrained by “the logic of conscience” implicit in Lacanian structuralism. According to this reading, Althusser’s account of ideological interpellation presupposes the subject’s “passionate complicity with law,” a complicity that at once conditions and limits the viability of critique, since “one cannot criticize too far the terms by which one’s existence is secured” (Butler 1997: 129). This pushes those like Butler in the direction of embracing “a willingness not to be – a critical desubjectivation – in order to expose the law as less powerful than it seems” (1997: 130).[48] One set of readers thought Althusser went way too far in the displacement of self-conscious and norm-directed human agency, while another set thought he did not go far enough. Both agreed, however, that he fell into functionalism. Both were wrong.

Althusser’s account of ideology seems to be the reverse of “the social construction of reality.” For Althusser, the question is not, how do human agents create an objective world of social significance, but how does a structured, meaningful world call into being humans as agents? This interpellation framework puts structure first, and, therefore, when it confronts systems of domination, it seems prone to functionalism. If structures recruit their bearers by interpellating them as subjects, then the reproduction of the system seems to be secured by the structure recruiting just the bearers it needs.

One of the signal contributions of Therborn’s The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology is recasting and developing Althusser’s argument so as to inoculate it against functionalism.[49] It accomplishes this in two ways. First, it is quite explicit about pluralizing ideologies, in the sense of insisting that “ruling-class ideological domination” is not the only ideological game in town, and that, moreover, “the ideological universe is not reducible to class ideologies” at all (Therborn 1999: 9, 26). Second, it specifically differentiates the “ego-ideology” and the “alter-ideology” that coexist in every positional ideology. I want to look at both of these moves more closely before stepping back to draw some lessons.

Althusser motivated his investigation of ideology by asking the question of how capitalist society reproduces itself. It is in the context of this question that he introduces the “ideological state apparatuses” and begins to discuss the way they recruit and form individuals so as to make them ready to be bearers of the relations of production. However, the discussion of interpellation in the second part of his essay is not restricted to this perspective of the reproduction of an exploitative mode of production. Rather, he explicitly broadens the scope so as to consider ideology tout court, the ideology that “has no history,” as he says, “omnipresent, trans-historical, and therefore immutable in form” (Althusser 1972: 161). Nevertheless, this discussion takes place in the shadow of the discussion of social reproduction, and so it is easy to imagine that all ideology works to reproduce class societies.

Therborn clearly and explicitly breaks with this presentation of the question. He is concerned, among other things, to show how Althusser’s conception of interpellation can illuminate both “the multidimensionality of ideologies” and “a crucial aspect of ideological struggles and ideological relations of force” (Therborn 1999: 27). Therborn claims that interpellation identifies “the dialectical character of all ideology” by articulating “the opposite senses of the same word ‘subject’ in the expression ‘the subject of king X (or the social order Y)’ and ‘the subject of history’” (1999: 16–17).

He wants to move beyond this subject/subject (or subjection/subjectivation) pairing – which risks making social theory hinge on a pun – and prefers instead the subjection/qualification doublet. I think “qualification” ends up repeating the dialectical alternation entirely on its own, though. Ideology qualifies1 in the sense of picking out what sort of being one is by means of address. And, in the moment of qualifying the being of the addressee, ideology also qualifies2 the addressee to speak or act as what they are. The word agent, in fact, contains the same duality. An agent is both someone who acts under their own direction, and someone who carries out actions only on behalf of someone else, a principle. The principle-agent problem turns precisely on the fact that an agent in the second sense proves also to be an agent in the first sense.

As Quill Kukla puts the point:

On this account, because being a person involves having a specific normative status, becoming one involves the repetition of a mythical structure whereby we become bound in the proper way by being recognized and recognizing ourselves as already having been bound. If we do not do this, the claims made upon us, such as the demand implicit in a hail, will not get a grip on us. Recognizing the hail involves recognizing not just its presence but its legitimacy, which is inseparable from taking it as really aimed at me, and hence as already making a real claim on me in virtue of having identified me correctly. The recognition of legitimacy and the constitution of legitimacy (and likewise, to the extent that being a certain person is a normative status, the recognition of who we are and the constitution of who we are) occur together. (2000: 168)

On the Althussser/Therborn account, ideology is happening when someone asks, “Can I talk to you, woman-to-woman?” And, since we also hail ourselves in various ways, ideology is happening when someone says, “As a student, I…” Ideology is also happening when we are disqualified in one way or another: e.g., “You’re no worker,” or “Why don’t you let the experts speak?”[50]

Therborn seeks to add order to this general account by analytically distinguishing four “dimensions” that constitute “the fundamental forms of human subjectivity” – ways of being in the world – and thereby producing “a structural map of the universe of ideologies” (1999: 23, 22). [See table 1.] Ideology may dis/qualify us as: 1) members of the human world as such, 2) members of a given socio-historical world among others, 3) occupying a particular position within the human world as such, or 4) occupying a particular position within a given socio-historical world among others.

Table 1: The universe of ideological interpellation

Subjectivities of ‘in-the-world’ Subjectivities of ‘being’
Existential Historical
Inclusive 1.     Membership in the world as such (humanity, mortality, divinity, etc.) 2.     Membership in a given social world (exclusive inclusion: citizenship, nationhood, church, neighborhood, etc.)
Positional 3.     Particular location in the world as such (age, gender, etc.) 4.     Particular location in a given social world (status, occupation, lifestyle, race, class, etc.)


The lessons Therborn draws from this abstract structural map are almost perfectly consonant with Stuart Hall’s Gramsci-inspired concrete analysis of ideological struggles.[51] First, “the ideological universe is never reducible to class ideologies. Even in the most class-polarized and class-conscious societies, the other fundamental forms of human subjectivity coexist with class subjectivities,” and existential questions will always be addressed by existential ideologies (Therborn 1999: 26). Second, “class ideologies coexist” – and must coexist – “with inclusive-historical ideologies” that define, say, national or religious belonging” (1999: 27). Finally – and here he borrows language directly from Gramsci and Hall – “a crucial aspect of ideological struggles and of ideological relations of force is the articulation of a given type of ideology with others” (1999: 27).

To illustrate with one of Hall’s examples:

Thinking about the ideological articulation of ‘black’ clearly demands that we recognise its relations to issues of class, class ideologies, and class struggles, but in ways that do not reduce the specificity of race, of racist concepts and practices, as well as of anti-racist struggles as a potential field of ideological contestation. … Race and class are powerfully articulated with one another but they are not the same and, consequently, each is likely to both unite and divide. A black labouring class, exploited by capital, is able to begin to constitute its political unity, partly through the categories of class, but more significantly through the categories of race in this particular situation [South Africa]. One can see this only by recognising the necessary autonomy of the different movements in the South African political scene, and the capabilities of developing a common political struggle through the possible articulation of those elements, without assuming their necessary correspondence. (Hall 2016: 186–87)

The plurality of ideologies cannot be eliminated, and the field of ideologies is crisscrossed with multiple lines of contest and opposition, but also with lines of support and interaction. In this context, the functionalist claim that ideology secures the reproduction of the exploitative relations of production loses its grip.[52] So, too, does the Leninist certainty that there is one struggle to which all the others reduce. The most you can say is that the reproduction of the relations of production is secured by the outcome, always provisional and contested, of various ideological struggles and on the basis of prevailing ideological relations of force.

The second line pursued by Therborn is to explicitly acknowledge and analyze the distinction between ego- and alter-ideologies. Positional ideologies – including class ideologies – qualify their addressees as occupying one position among others in the world, and therefore necessarily relate their recipients to others, occupying other positions. But, even if we suppose for a moment a dyadic social world with only two positions, x and y, there is no reason to suppose that the ego-ideology of those in position x corresponds to the alter-ideology of those in position y. The boss’s self-image may diverge quite sharply from her employees’ image of her.

This is critically important for thinking about ideology in systems of domination. The alter-ideology of those in the dominant position – what Albert Memmi analyzed as “the mythical portrait of the colonized” (1991: 123)[53] – may be at odds with the ego-ideology of the dominated. The attempt to subject/qualify the dominated by one set of interpellations will encounter a contrary attempt, among the dominated, to subject/qualify one another in different terms. The subaltern can speak, they overwhelmingly speak to one another, and how they address one another can never be reduced to how the dominant address them.

The ritual practices of domination – parades, public apologies, ceremonies of magnificence, bowing and genuflection, etc. – constitute the public transcript of the ego- and alter-ideology of the dominant, while the ego- and alter-ideology of the dominated are a hidden transcript, to borrow the terms of James Scott (1990). This means that the ideologies of the dominant – the practices and discourses in which they hail both one another and their servants – are openly proclaimed and available for all to see. These practices of dis/qualification, however, do not reveal everything about the situation, since they are, precisely, the terms in which the dominant justify their dominance.[54] They must, in some sense, be “read against the grain” in order to release the knowledge they contain potentially (Kayes 1989). This intuition, arrived at by many travelers on many roads, has given rise to diverse and mutually incompatible methods of discourse analysis and interpretation, all of which strive to open up or inhabit “the perspective of the dominated” (Patterson 1982: 335).

As Therborn points out, there is also, “inscribed in the asymmetry of domination,” a difference between the alter-ideology of the dominant and the alter-ideology of the dominated (1999: 28). Where the alter-ideology of the dominant is an image of the dominated that seeks to impose itself on them, to shape and control them, the alter-ideology of the dominated does not seek to control the dominant but to resist and/or evade them. Hence, it is not surprising that many of the attempts to break the seal on the ideologies of domination have turned very precisely to rebellion, resistance, and escape as sites for revealing, for instance, “the peasant as the maker of his own rebellion” (Guha 1983: 4).

The post-Gramscian account of ideology, including especially Therborn’s analytical clarification of that account, gives us a theoretical matrix for thinking about this corpus of studies in a fruitful way, not only because it combats the tendency towards functionalism, but because it provides a new basis for thinking anew the intersection of domination and ideology. The risk of pluralizing ideology is that, in recognizing the pervasiveness and multifaceted character of ideology, one might simultaneously evacuate ideology of its stakes – or else invest every contest over dis/qualification with a moral urgency that is exhausting and fruitless. If everything is ideological, then ideological struggle becomes the night in which all cows are black. But by separating domination out from ideology, and tracing the specific ways in which relations of domination have a special set of effects on the ideological field, Therborn’s framework gives us the analytical tools necessary to focus on some ideological struggles rather than others.

Therborn’s framework also confronts us with a problem, though. Insofar as the attempt to penetrate the dominant ideology is understood as the effort to discover and read the hidden transcript, the project of inquiry seems to be confined to peeling back one ideology in search of another. The ego- and alter-ideologies of the dominated – their standpoint, perspective, voice, and agency – may well be worth recovering, to whatever extent we can but, as ideological, these express, in Althusser’s phrase, an “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (1972: 162).

Therborn himself wants to dismiss this phrase because it is redolent of the opposition “between science and ideology as such, true and false consciousness,” an opposition he thinks is “tied to a view of human motivation” according to which people are driven to act by real class interests, in relation to which ideology is merely epiphenomenal, illusory, “and as such ineffective (at least in the longer run)” (1999: 4, 8). I do not agree.

Althusser’s distinction between ideology and science is analogous to Wilfrid Sellars’s distinction between normative facts and empirical facts.[55] Quill Kukla, whose attention to the similarities between Sellars and Althusser is groundbreaking, notes that “empirical facts, for Sellars, are in a sense always normative ‘all the way down,’ in the sense that they can make determinate, authoritative claims on us only when we take them as normatively related to other facts” (2000: 209). This is analogous to Althusser’s claim that “there is no practice [including, obviously, scientific practice] except by and in an ideology” (1972: 170). And yet Sellars wants to distinguish normative from empirical facts and Althusser wants to distinguish ideology from science. As Kukla clarifies, “to state a normative fact is not merely to describe a state of affairs, but rather to make a set of demands.”

Standard examples like ‘killing is wrong’ are obvious cases; more interestingly, ‘p is evidence’ is a normative fact in a way that ‘p is green’ is not, even if we grant that the claim ‘p is green’ is only meaningful as placed within normative space. To say that ‘p is evidence’ is not just to report on a state of affairs, but to make a claim about what sort of authority p has. To say that ‘p is green’ commits us to various inferences and other claims and generally embeds us in the economy of epistemic authority, but it does not make a claim about this normative melee. (2000: 209–10; emphasis added)

Adapting this to Althusser’s case, we can say that an ideological claim is about the “normative melee,” whereas a scientific claim is in but not about normative space. An ideological claim makes demands, whereas a scientific claim merely embeds its author and its reader in an economy of such demands without itself making any demands on them.

This matters because Therborn’s recognition that domination is distinct from and influential upon ideologies implicitly acknowledges this same distinction. Varying Sellars’s distinction slightly, we can say that domination is a social fact, not a normative fact. To say that ‘x stands in a relation of domination to y’ is only meaningful within the space of reasons, and it is a claim about a relationship obtaining within the space of reasons, but it is not itself a normative claim. It makes no demands upon us. It does not tell us what stance we should take vis-à-vis this social fact. Domination is, in this way, a “normatively neutral” concept; the normative stance we take to an instance of domination “does not depend on the definition of domination itself,” but is based on our other normative commitments (Pansardi 2016: 94, n. 3).[56]

That Therborn is committed to such a distinction is indicated by his retention of a materialist account of ideologies as always operating “in a material matrix of affirmations and sanctions.” He rightly insists that “the competition, coexistence, or conflict of different ideologies is dependent on the non-discursive matrices” within which they exist. The social facts regarding who can do what to whom at what cost are analytically distinct from the ideological significance of those facts, even if “all human activity is invested with meaning and all ideological interpellations have some kind of ‘material’ existence” (Therborn 1999: 33–34). Therborn’s practical commitment to a distinction between the order of ideology and the order of science is further indicated by his acceptance of two historical materialist hypotheses. First, all ideologies in class societies are themselves “bound up with and affected by different modes of class existence and are linked to and affected by different class ideologies.” Second, and more controversially, while “ideological conflicts and competition are (usually) not directly determined by class relations,” they are nonetheless “overdetermined by class relations” in the sense “that different classes select different forms of non-class ideologies and that class constellations of force limit the possibilities of ideological interrelationships and of ideological change” (1999: 38–39; emphasis added).

The intricacies of these commitments can be left aside. What matters for present purposes is that the line of thinking about ideology that was inaugurated by Gramsci and developed by Althusser and Therborn is committed to an analytical distinction between social facts and ideological facts, or between our real social conditions and our imaginary relation to those conditions, even as it insists upon both the necessary permanence of ideology and the validity of the space of reasons within which we find ourselves and operate. This is not Marx and Engels’s critique of ideology as protagonism, though it is compatible with that critique. Neither is it the critique of ideology as false consciousness – whether this is opposed to class consciousness or to critical consciousness – since it is not the case that ideology is reducible to consciousness, and neither  is it the case that projects of self-emancipation are anything other than ideological projects.

Gone, too, is the entire conception of overcoming or escaping a reified “second nature” into an unstructured and free space of reasons and norms. The space of reasons and norms is the terrain of ideology, the space in which we address one another and are addressed, in which we recruit one another to projects and are recruited. This space of reasons is both co-extensive with society and always structured or patterned by material social relations that can and must be identified and discussed in distinction from the space of reasons itself.

The consequence of this shift emerges when Therborn criticizes political theory for continuously dealing with ideology within the frameworks of the legitimacy of government and the consent of the governed. As he argues, these frameworks are fundamentally rooted in “a subjectivist conception of history, according to which political processes are decided by unitary conscious subjects.” They are also essentially “idealist” – protagonist-ideological, one might add – in their complete separation of normative matters from material practices, and their assumption of “a simplistic, rationalist motivation of human beings” (Therborn 1999: 101–2). Against this focus on legitimacy and consent, Therborn insists that what is needed is a method of “normative evaluation” that applies itself “directly to the institutions of the regime, rather than to the way they are maintained”;  that is, to the “rights and powers” these institutions “grant, in practice, to different groups and classes in society,” and the sanctions they deploy in the enforcement and distribution of these rights and powers (1999: 110).

It is to this task – studying and evaluating the rights and powers actually granted by social and political institutions – that critical social theory ought to turn. The fundamental question ought to be: “Who can do what to whom, at what cost?”


William Clare Roberts is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University, in Montreal. He is the author of Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (2107). He is currently at work on two book manuscripts: The Radical Politics of Freedom: Domination, Ideology, and Self-Emancipation, and Universal Emancipation and History: The Making and Unmaking of ‘History From Below.’



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[1] Lyubov Isaakovna Akselrod (1914). I would like to thank two anonymous referees, and well as Christian Thorne, for their comments and questions, which have made this essay stronger than it would otherwise have been. I also owe a great debt to the students of my seminar in the winter of 2022, without whom I would not have been able to do this work.

[2] It has been over forty years since Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner wrote: “It is widely agreed that the notion of ‘ideology’ has given rise to more analytical and conceptual difficulties than almost any other term in the social sciences. The term has suffered many demolitions and reconstitutions” (1980: 187). In the intervening decades, demolitions and reconstitutions have continued apace, and analytical and conceptual difficulties have continued to accumulate.

[3] This also includes the early Zionists, whose desire for national self-emancipation could not take the form of an anti-colonialism, since they lacked a territorial base, but took instead the form of a colonialism. Leon Pinsker argued that, for Jews, the “future will remain insecure and precarious unless a radical change in our position is made. This change cannot be brought about by the civil emancipation of the Jews in this or that state, but only by the auto-emancipation of the Jewish people as a nation, the foundation of a colonial community belonging to the Jews, which is some day to become our inalienable home, our country” (1906: 15)

[4] For a searching investigation of voluntary submission in the history and present of feminist and political theory, see Garcia (2021).

[5] For recent statements, pro and contra, of the “classical” conception of ideology critique, see Lafont (2023) and Sankaran (2020), respectively.

[6] Dworkin comes the closest. Her examination of anti-feminism among women is clearly motivated by her commitment to the self-emancipation of women, but this motivating commitment is not itself brought reflexively into her study.

[7] This is clear from the source texts collected in Garnsey (1996).

[8] See, however, Origen’s Homily on Genesis, where the forcible bondage of the Hebrews in Egypt is contrasted to the bondage of the Egyptians themselves. The Egyptians, Origen claims, “are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices,” a deficit he attributes to their descent from Ham and Canaan. This is a “voluntary bondage,” and, therefore, the divine Law does not “entertain concern for Egyptian freedom” (Origenes 1982: 16.1). The voluntary servitude of the Egyptians is an original and perpetual state, therefore, a manifest sign of their fitness for natural slavery. This approach is further codified in Augustine’s dictum that “the prime cause of slavery … is sin” (1960: 19.15).

[9] See Nyquist (2015, chap. 2).

[10] In this, he follows the earlier Italians, who “preferred the governments of Venice and Sparta to those of Florence and Athens, and the reasons they alleged were fairly consistent: Venetian and Spartan stability were preferable to the constant mutations of Florentine and Athenian government, and a mixed constitution was inherently more durable than one in which the supreme power is vested in the people” (Roberts 2011: 129).

[11] See García-Alonso (2013), who argues that La Boétie’s position is close to Harrington’s, and that he saw an empire of law, protected by a senate of aristocrats, as the guarantor of political liberty against both tyranny and corruption (patronage).

[12]  Or of “five or six,” or of  “six.” There is a fatal indeterminacy and perhaps an even more fatal inflation at work in La Boétie’s causal story. It is impossible to say exactly how many voluntary servants there are, and there may always be one more than you thought. Eternal vigilance, of course, is the price of liberty, but eternal suspicion may be the only modality of vigilance. There is a fairly direct line, then, between La Boétie’s theory of voluntary servitude and Robespierre’s practice of revolutionary virtue. On attempts by postcolonial statesmen to arrest this slide from vigilance into suspicion and distrust, see Bose (2023).

[13] This is contrary to the wishes of some readers of an anarchist inclination; see, e.g., Newman (2022).

[14] I have added the emphasis and modified the translation; compare Destutt de Tracy (2015: 284). In French, conscience means both conscience and consciousness, but Destutt de Tracy is not referring to a derangement of our moral sense but to a distortion of our broader awareness of our selves and our world.

[15] I have modified the translation here; besoin, translated as “want” by Jefferson in keeping with English usage in the early nineteenth century, should be understood in the more emphatic sense of “need.”

[16] This essay originally appeared in an Australian magazine, The Philosopher: A Magazine for Free Spirits, but the only version I can find anymore is the one published on Gaus’s website. My citations will, therefore, be of this version, which has its own pagination.

[17] See also Lichtheim, who says simply that Marx and Engels “shared Napoleon’s disdain for them [the idéologistes]” (1965: 166).

[18] It is Charles Mills who pioneered this interpretation (1992; anticipated by Mills and Goldstick 1989); I have also been guided in my reading of Marx and Engels by Bowman (2021).

[19] Marx’s extracts can be found in Marx and Engels (1981, IV/2: 489–92).

[20] It was more likely meant to be the statement of purpose for a journal on the lines of the defunct Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbücher (Johnson 2022).

[21] I am not necessarily adopting Bowman’s analysis of protagonism whole cloth, however, though it has much to recommend it. We differ somewhat in our analyses of the superstructure, differences which will come out below.

[22] No one has done more to flesh out this basic element of historical materialism that Alan Carling (1993; 2002).

[23] For a representative example in an otherwise careful parsing of this passage, see Barrett (1991: 9–10; see also Shaw 1989).

[24] Scott’s anarchist sympathies show themselves in his suspicion that trying to convince people to do something they don’t already want to do is, ipso facto, authoritarian.

[25] This was the so-called “I. Feuerbach” section, still the most famous part of the manuscripts.

[26] The role of translation in Gramsci’s prison writings, both as an activity and as a concept, has been examined by Nizalowska (2022).

[27] On the Russian word underlying discussion of “spontaneity” (stikhiinost), and why it could better be rendered as “elemental-ness,” see Lih (2008: 616–28).

[28] Zubatov was a former radical who became head of the Moscow Okhrana, from which perch he spearheaded a program of legal, police-led unions with the intent of demonstrating that the workers could gain more from working with the tsar than trying to overthrow him.

[29] In Lih (2008: 709–10; translation modified).

[30] Workers’ and soldiers’ councils also took over the administration of many cities, but without moving in a communist direction. Max Weber participated in the Heidelberg workers’ council, for example.

[31] The line of argument running from What Is to Be Done? to Lukács’s 1919-23 writings indicates how misleading is Vivek Chibber’s claim that “Classical Marxism confidently asserted that capitalism’s own logic would lead inexorably to the organization of the working class and the overthrow of the system. … This theory, derived from Marx and Lenin, … rested on the assumption that forms of consciousness – of self-identification – would emerge within labor sooner or later, even if the path was a torturous one” (2022: 78). Chibber associates the turn to ideology with mid-century and New Left accounts of the integration of the working class into consumer culture. In fact, it was already fully developed and explicit in the classical Marxism of the Second International. It was Lyubov Isaakovna Axelrod (AKA “Orthodox”) – a committed partisan of Plekhanov, the archetypical font of the objective necessity of the proletarian revolution and the movement to socialism – who wrote “In Defense of Ideology” in Iskra in 1914.

[32] “The effects of the division of labour, in the general business of society, will be more easily understood, by considering in what manner it operates in some particular manufactures. It is commonly supposed to be carried furthest in some very trifling ones; not perhaps that it really is carried further in them than in others of more importance: but in those trifling manufactures which are destined to supply the small wants of but a small number of people, the whole number of workmen must necessarily be small; and those employed in every different branch of the work can often be collected into the same workhouse, and placed at once under the view of the spectator. In those great manufactures, on the contrary, which are destined to supply the great wants of the great body of the people, every different branch of the work employs so great a number of workmen, that it is impossible to collect them all into the same workhouse. We can seldom see more, at one time, than those employed in one single branch. Though in such manufactures, therefore, the work may really be divided into a much greater number of parts, than in those of a more trifling nature, the division is not near so obvious, and has accordingly been much less observed” (Smith 1976: I.1).

[33] Lukács’s argument here ignores Marx’s criticism of Smith on this point: the division of labor in the factory is not the same as the social division of labor, precisely because workers in a factory do not exchange their products with one another (see Marx 1976, chap. 14).

[34] The extent to which Lukács is simply overwriting the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology is remarkable. He has internalized Hegel’s claim that “the truth is the whole” (2013: §20), wedded this to the idea that Capital is socialism reduced to a science, and birthed from these the notion that the proletarian who comprehends the critique of political economy gains thereby a class consciousness that is merely the essential nature of humanity’s self-creation reaching its completeness through the process of its own development. “Of the Absolute,” Hegel wrote, “it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is it what it is in very truth; and just in that consists its nature, which is to be actual, subject, or self-becoming, self-development” (2013: §20). Lukács takes the absolute to be humanity itself, takes the end to be communism, and takes the self-becoming of this subject to be the proletariat becoming class conscious.

[35] Lukács is quoting Lenin, “A Great Beginning.”

[36] The phrase was coined by Berger and Luckmann (1990), but the way had already been charted by Mannheim (2015).

[37] Contra Horkheimer (1982: 209).

[38] This is a controversial judgment among partisans of early critical theory. However, I think it is at least plausible, and provides a defensible if not a complete picture.

[39] “Illegitimate domination also meets with consent [Zustimmung], else it would not be able to last. (One need only recall those days in which great masses of people came together in the squares and on the streets, without being pressured to do so [ohne Pression], in order to acclaim ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer – was that an expression of anything other than a non-theoretical, average norm-consciousness?)” (Habermas 1979: 202; translation modified). The notion that mass enthusiasm and an absence of social pressure can coexist will not bear scrutiny.

[40] In Rainer Forst’s version of the argument, “such structures are not ‘norm-free;’ rather the norms and justifications they rest on allow for certain orms of strategic action that disregard traditional and ethical norms” (2015: 119).

[41] This also seems to be the presupposition of Rahel Jaeggi’s rethinking of ideology and ideology critique, although she is more equivocal. According to Jaeggi, ideological versions of ideals like freedom and equality take hold of practices – her examples are labor contracts and other forms of exploitative exchange – and twist or distort them so that they produce the opposite of the proclaimed norms of freedom and equality. Jaeggi concludes, therefore, that ideological “norms (as in the above-mentioned case, the values of freedom and equality that are constitutive for civil society) are effective, but as effective factors they have become inconsistent or deficient” (2009: 75). Jaeggi’s position, therefore, seems to be somewhat distinct from the Frankfurt School position reconstructed by Geuss, but it may be a distinction without a difference. False consciousness does not necessarily motivate the formation of practices, since it may instead originate in attempts to justify or rationalize existing practices. However, once ideological justifications exist, they shape or reconstruct the practices from which they emerged, and are effective insofar as they make the practices into engines for producing the opposite of the declared justificatory values. Ideology has rebuilt the objective, institutional world, and that world will not be torn down by ideology critique alone, but ideology critique is a prerequisite to that tearing down, just as ideology was a motivating factor in the reconstructing of the world.

[42] The more parsimonious “radical realist” approach to ideology critique proposed by Aytac and Rossi, despite its debt to Geuss, may avoid this implicit reference to a counterfactual horizon of perfect knowledge and freedom, if only by eschewing any reference to totality in favor of a pragmatic claim about the epistemic faults typical of self-justifying power (2023).

[43] These notes were part of The Modern Prince and Other Essays, a selection from the Quaderni published by International Publishers in 1957. They were also included in the collection of Gramsci’s prison notebooks published by Les Éditions Sociales in 1959. These two collections were the primary means of access to Gramsci’s writings in the anglophone and francophone worlds through the 1960s.

[44] Althusser’s obvious and repeated criticisms of aspects of (the received version of) Gramsci’s theory for a long time created the impression that the two were “utterly incompatible” (Frosini 2008: 669; see also Thomas 2009).

[45] In political theory, at least.

[46] This is not the standard interpretation of Althusser, but neither is it unprecedented (see Kukla 2000).

[47] Callinicos echoes arguments going back to Thompson (1978).

[48] This argument has been important for a certain critique of identity politics (see Haider 2018). It also reveals, I think, Butler’s affinities with Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory.

[49] This does not mean the accusation will not be made. Callinicos, for example, thinks that Therborn’s reconstruction is just as Parsonian as Althusser’s original, and that, “for Therborn, social actors are not agents, able to pursue their own goals, but are rather social constructs, the passive bearers of social relations” (2006: 146). My own argument in this section should put this accusation to rest.

[50] My examples all use linguistic interpellations, but this is solely for the ease and brevity with which these can be invoked. Ritualized or institutionalized practices often require lengthy description to be identified.

[51] However, it must be noted that, when Hall retreats to more abstract, general propositions about ideology he can occasionally sound very much like a student of the Frankfurt School.

[52] Which is, in fact, precisely what Althusser affirmed at the end of his essay: “the State and its Apparatuses only have meaning from the point of view of the class struggle, as an apparatus of class struggle ensuring class oppression and guaranteeing the conditions of exploitation and its reproduction. But there is no class struggle without antagonistic classes. Whoever says class struggle of the ruling class says resistance, revolt, and class struggle of the ruled class” (1972: 184).

[53] Memmi’s study is intriguing in part because, beginning from phenomenological premises, it approaches, asymptotically, the structuralist analysis of ideology found in Althusser and Therborn.

[54] This is consonant with the argument of Aytac and Rossi (2023).

[55] This is an analogy, not an identity. Althusser denies that science is empirical, and nothing I say about the similarities between his procedure and that of Sellars should be taken to imply attributing empiricism to Althusser.

[56] This is very much contrary to the lesson drawn within the Frankfurt School, where domination names “cases of unjustifiable asymmetrical social relations which rest on a closing off of the space of justifications such that these relations appear as legitimate, natural, God-given, or in any way unalterable” (Forst 2015: 125). Forst has all the resources necessary in his conception of noumenal power to recognize that domination never leaves or closes off the space of reasons, but is unable to draw on those resources because of his single-minded focus on the exercise of power, rather than on power itself.


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