Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5.: The Ideological Superstructure - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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5.: The Ideological Superstructure - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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The Ideological Superstructure
We have seen in Section 2 of this chapter that Marx and Engels used the word “ideology” for false conceptions of the world which men come to adopt for reasons they themselves are unaware of. We have seen further that Marx distinguished legal, political, moral (or ethical), artistic, religious, theological, and philosophical ideologies, and contrasted ideological thinking with thinking that can be “faithfully substantiated in the manner of the natural sciences.” It will thus be seen that it is not a valid objection to Marxism to argue, as is often done, that Marxism makes science an ideology and therefore, in claiming scientific status, stultifies its own position. We have now considered, in outline, the view of society which Marx, Engels, and Stalin believed was thus “substantiated in the manner of the natural sciences,” and we must now return to consider somewhat more carefully the Marxist notion of an ideology.
A first point to notice is that the list of ideologies must have been suggested by the philosophy of Hegel. Hegel regarded morality, law, and politics as aspects of the State, and the State he regarded as Spirit manifesting itself as freedom, and as the highest form of “objective spirit.” It was not his view, however, that the State was the highest manifestation of Spirit altogether. He held that other, and higher, manifestations of it were art, revealed religion, and philosophy, philosophy being the rational working out of what in revealed religion is still not fully conscious of itself.60 It will be seen, therefore, that, whereas in Marx’s system the legal and political ideologies are closer to “the material conditions of life,” i.e., to social reality, than art, religion, and philosophy are, in Hegel’s system art, religion, and philosophy are closer to the reality of Absolute Spirit than law and politics are. It was with these views in mind that Marx attempted to show that law and politics distort the real less than art, religion, and philosophy do, and that his social science of industry and warring classes, being faithfully substantiated in the manner of the natural sciences, does not distort the real at all. Furthermore, the Materialist Conception of History, since it is thus scientifically established, is, he believed, more than a mere theory—it is a step in the transformation of society, just as natural science is a practical activity of controlling nature. This follows from the view that science is a union of theory and practice. Since the Materialist Conception of History is a science, Socialism is a science, and science is something practical.
A further point to notice is that Marx and Engels applied the term “ideology” to systems of ideas, outlooks, or theories. Ideologies, in their view, are more or less misleading conceptions of the world. Religious and philosophical ideologies, i.e., theology and metaphysics, distort our view of nature as a whole, including society, and ethical, legal, and political ideologies distort our view of society. What artistic ideologies are, and what they distort, is not made clear in the works that Marx published.61 But we still need to consider what sorts of systems of ideas these ideologies are. Are the moral, legal, and political ideologies, for example, such practical systems as the Christian or Buddhist ethics, Roman or English law, or the political outlooks of Toryism and Liberalism? Or are they philosophical systems of morals, law, and politics, such as Utilitarianism or Intuitionism, Neo-Kantian jurisprudence, and the Idealist theory of the State? I think that both sorts of system were regarded by Marx and Engels as ideologies, and that the various philosophies of morals, law, and politics were not usually classed as elements of the philosophical ideology, but were associated with their respective subject-matters. An example of this may be seen in Engels’ letter to Conrad Schmidt of October 27, 1890, where he writes: “The reflection of economic relations as legal principles is necessarily also a topsy-turvy one: it happens without the person who is acting being conscious of it; the jurist imagines he is operating with a priori principles whereas they are really only economic reflexes.” A practicing lawyer, I imagine, does not often consider whether or not the legal principles he uses are a priori. That is the sort of problem that might occur to a philosophizing lawyer. Hence it seems that “jurist” here refers to philosophers of law, unless, indeed, Engels means that lawyers regard the law they practice as having an authority like that of logic or arithmetic and as being fixed like them, and, like them, quite distinct from the economic life of their society. This, surely, could not have been the case in Engels’ day, since the law was then constantly being changed, and a very large part of it, as always, related to industry and trade. Lawyers of all people, I should have thought, must always have been well aware of the importance that people attach to money and property.
However this may be, the Marxist view, so far as one view can be extracted from the texts, is that both systems and philosophies of morals, law, and politics, and religious systems, and theology, and philosophy itself, are or involve systems of ideas that represent in a distorted form the real things they purport to relate to, the distortions resulting from the social situation of their framers and concealing from them what is really going on. People who accept systems of ideas like the Christian morality, Ethical Intuitionism, the law of their country, Toryism, Liberalism, the theory of sovereignty or of political pluralism, Platonism, Idealism, etc., do not know what they are really doing. They are all, in varying degrees, deceived. The Christian thinks he is trying to worship God and serve his fellow men, whereas in actual fact he is helping to perpetuate those false views of the world that make it easier for the bourgeoisie to exploit the proletariat. The Ethical Intuitionist—the philosopher, that is, who holds that there is a quasi-mathematical knowledge of moral principles—thinks he is showing precisely what ethical judgments are, but really he is arguing for the retention of the current morality and for the continuing supremacy of the class that it favors. Tories or Liberals, thinking they hold their political principles because they believe them to be for the good of their country, really hold them as a result of the unconscious promptings of their class interests. Platonist and Idealist philosophers believe that they have followed the argument whithersoever it led, but in fact their philosophies are thinly disguised theologies, theologies are justifications of irrationally accepted religious practices, and religious practices, with their “fanes of fruitless prayer,” are futile gesturings arising from illusory hopes. Feuerbach had thought that if religious illusions were exposed by means of “anthropology” they would lose their attraction and shrivel up. Those psychiatrists who suppose that the neurotic’s self-knowledge may cure his neurosis have had a similar idea. Marx did not suppose that ideologies would disappear once their adherents had seen through them, if “seeing through” is taken in the ordinary sense that would distinguish it from practical activity.
With this in mind, then, let us consider, in a way that Marx does not, some of the principal ways in which men might be related to their ideologies. In the first place, we have to distinguish between (a) those believers in an ideology who belong to an exploited class whose interests the ideology does not serve, and (b) those believers in the ideology who belong to classes whose sectional interests are both marked and promoted by it. On the assumption that most people are more than ready to accept points of view which harmonize with what they believe are their interests, we may suppose that believers of type (a) will tend to abandon their ideology if they come to think that it is a means of exploiting them. For, it can be argued, they have no strong vital urge for holding it, but have only come to accept it as part of the stock of ideas of their class-divided society. I suppose a Marxist would hold that because their interests incline them that way, believers of type (b) are unlikely ever to see through it. Our deep-rooted desires cunningly keep us from thinking thoughts that are too dangerous. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels were certainly members of the class that they called the exploiting class, so that it has to be admitted that sometimes people can see through an ideology from which they might expect to profit. It would seem that exploiters who have seen through the exploiting ideology have two main courses open to them: either to renounce their origin and attach themselves to the proletariat, or to uphold their sectional interests consciously, by not attacking or by actually promoting ideas they no longer believe in themselves, much as a wealthy atheist might give financial support to a church which he thought helped to maintain public order. When Marxists accuse their opponents of hypocrisy (perhaps “deceit” would be a better word), it is some such conduct they have in mind. But in so far as, on the Marxist view, science is a union of theory and practice and Marxism is a scientific view of society, no one who does not actively promote the proletarian cause has succeeded in gaining a scientific understanding of society. If the criterion of practice be insisted on, therefore, only those members of the bourgeois class who actually work for the Communist Party can claim to have seen through an ideology scientifically, “in the manner of the natural sciences.” In this way the Marxist is enabled to argue that no one who does not work on behalf of the Marxist Communist parties can really understand what Marxism is. Once more the similarity with Pascal’s advice to learn to be a Christian by going to Mass is obvious.
Earlier in this chapter I distinguished between the politico-legal superstructure and the ideological superstructure. This is in accordance with Marx’s account of the matter in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. In that same Preface, however, he speaks of legal and political ideologies, and I have not so far considered this apparent discrepancy. Is it merely that terminology was not tidied up, or is there some fundamental confusion? In my opinion the latter is the case, and the confusion is the same as the one we exposed in the previous section. No doubt Marx was drawing a distinction between legal and political behavior and legal and political theories. Legal and political behavior was superstructural by comparison with “economic” behavior, but legal and political theories were superstructural by comparison with legal and political behavior as well as by comparison with “economic” behavior. Now we have already argued that there is no such thing as purely “economic” behavior, but that moral, as well as legal (or quasi-legal) and political factors are involved in production and exchange. It is now necessary to point out that, in saying this, we are saying that moral, legal, and political ideas, outlooks, theories, are involved in production and exchange, for moral, legal, and political behavior is conscious behavior that requires thought and talk. A man’s conduct is right or wrong in terms of some system of moral assessment that guides his conduct; lawyers are occupied all their working lives with the interpretation of legal principles; and even the most unprincipled political adventurer is aware that there are various systems of political ideals that he must take account of. All conscious human action is in terms of standards and principles of some sort, however dimly conceived they may be. When Engels quoted the aphorism: “In the beginning was the deed,” he should have added that the deeds of men, unlike those of the beasts, are conceived in, and sometimes perpetuated by, words. Thus, the distinction between the politico-legal superstructure and the relevant ideological superstructure can only be a distinction between behavior in which ideas and theories are neither explicit nor the prime object of attention, and explicit theorizing about such behavior.
We now come to a matter which leads on to the subject of the next chapter. It will be remembered that in the first section of the present chapter I showed that the Materialist Conception of History was meant to be an anti-metaphysical theory based on the evidence of our senses. The facts and “needs” revealed by our senses were, as we have seen, to be examined “in the manner of the natural sciences.” Now it is commonly supposed that one important characteristic of the method of the natural sciences is to be free from any preconceptions about the value, the goodness or badness, the perfection or defect, of what is being investigated. At one time the heavenly bodies were regarded as divine or quasi-divine beings whose special essence (or “quintessence,” as it was called) rendered them superior to the things here below. One of Galileo’s many contributions to experimental science was to apply to the movements of earthly bodies mathematical principles which had previously been regarded as specially applicable to the moon, sun, and other planets. Under his inspiration physics ceased to distinguish between grades or orders of being, and became, as it is put today, “value-free.” It is natural, therefore, for anyone who aspires to be the Galileo of the social sciences, to suppose that they, like the natural sciences, must be value-free. In the generation after Galileo, Spinoza was already making this demand. In our own day we are told, in the same spirit, that there must be no preconceptions about what people ought to want, or how they ought to act, but they must be studied to ascertain what they do want and how they do act. In this spirit, therefore, the material or economic basis of human society is human behavior as revealed to observers who seek to find out how people in fact desire, behave, and believe. Ideological thinking, part of which is moral thinking, is always the outcome of the thinker’s wishes and interests, however much disguised they may be. The scientific thinking, however, to which Marxists aspire, would be undisturbed by such extraneous factors, and would seek to discover how society works in order to predict what it will become. Adherents of ideologies are, on this view, people who, because of their class situation, have failed to free themselves from emotional hindrances to scientific observation. The scientific observer of society, through his microscope of Historical Materialism, sees such people as they really are—as people whose view of both physical and social reality is distorted by their wishes and interests. The Materialist Conception of History, it is held, is not just another new view, but is the view which corrects and explains all other views, and differs from them in that, as scientific, it is not influenced by sectional prejudices. As a scientific theory of how things in fact happen, it claims to call the moral bluffs of mankind by showing how moral outlooks depend on class interests. At the same time, as a genuine scientific theory in which theory and practice are combined, it claims to provide a practical solution to our social difficulties. We must now consider the details of these remarkable claims.
[60. ]Encyclopedia, §§ 553–77.
[61. ]In the unpublished Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx briefly discusses Greek art. He says that it “presupposes Greek mythology, that is, nature and the form of society itself worked up in an unconsciously artistic way by the imagination of a people” (Kautsky’s edition, p. xlix. I have altered Stone’s translation, which is misleading here). He says further that Greek mythology cannot be taken seriously in an industrial age, and that the delight that ancient Greek poetry gives us today is comparable with the delight that adults have in “the artless ways of a child.” “Why,” he asks, “should the social childhood of mankind, when it had obtained its most beautiful development, not exert eternal charm as an age that will never return?” We may note here (a) the significant reference to the unconsciously functioning imagination of a people (Volksphantasie), (b) the assumption that because the ancient Greeks had an inadequate conception of the physical world and a comparatively undeveloped technology, their social arrangements and cultural productions are childlike by comparison with those of 1859, and (c) the confusion of aesthetic appreciation with a sort of nostalgia for what can never be again. As to (a), we see Feuerbach’s observations on the religious imagination being applied to art, so as to suggest what we may call a Freudian-cum-Jungian view of it. As to (b) and (c), it should be observed, in fairness to Marx, that it was not he who published this Introduction.