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The Ideological Impregnation of Thought

Tags History of the Austrian School of EconomicsOther Schools of ThoughtPolitical Theory

08/11/2010Ludwig von Mises

[Excerpted from chapter 7 of Theory and History. An audio version of this article, excerpted from the forthcoming audiobook version, read by John Pruden.

From the supposed irreconcilable conflict of class interests Marx deduces his doctrine of the ideological impregnation of thought. In a class society man is inherently unfit to conceive theories which are a substantially true description of reality. As his class affiliation, his social being, determines his thoughts, the products of his intellectual effort are ideologically tainted and distorted. They are not truth, but ideologies. An ideology in the Marxian sense of the term is a false doctrine which, however, precisely on account of its falsity, serves the interests of the class from which its author stems.

We may omit here dealing with many aspects of this ideology doctrine. We need not disprove anew the doctrine of polylogism, according to which the logical structure of mind differs in the members of various classes.1 We may furthermore admit that the main concern of a thinker is exclusively to promote the interests of his class even if these clash with his interests as an individual. We may finally abstain from questioning the dogma that there is no such thing as the disinterested search for truth and knowledge and that all human inquiry is exclusively guided by the practical purpose of providing mental tools for successful action. The ideology doctrine would remain untenable even if all the irrefutable objections that can be raised from the point of view of these three aspects could be rejected.

Whatever one may think of the adequacy of the pragmatist definition of truth, it is obvious that at least one of the characteristic marks of a true theory is that action based on it succeeds in attaining the expected result. In this sense truth works, while untruth does not work. Precisely if we assume, in agreement with the Marxians, that the end of theorizing is always success in action, the question must be raised why and how an ideological (that is, in the Marxian sense, a false) theory should be more useful to a class than a correct theory?

There is no doubt that the study of mechanics was motivated, at least to some extent, by practical considerations. People wanted to make use of the theorems of mechanics to solve various problems of engineering. It was precisely the pursuit of these practical results that impelled them to search for a correct, not for a merely ideological (false) science of mechanics. No matter how one looks at it, there is no way in which a false theory can serve a man or a class or the whole of mankind better than a correct theory. How did Marx come to teach such a doctrine?

To answer this question we must remember the motive that impelled Marx to all his literary ventures. He was driven by one passion — to fight for the adoption of socialism. But he was fully aware of his inability to oppose any tenable objection to the economists' devastating criticism of all socialist plans. He was convinced that the system of economic doctrine developed by the classical economists was impregnable, and remained unaware of the serious doubts which essential theorems of this system had already raised in some minds. Like his contemporary John Stuart Mill, he believed "there is nothing in the laws of value which remains for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete."2 When in 1871 the writings of Carl Menger and William Stanley Jevons inaugurated a new epoch of economic studies, Marx's career as a writer on economic problems had already come to a virtual end. The first volume of Das Kapital had been published in 1867; the manuscript of the following volumes was well along. There is no indication that Marx ever grasped the meaning of the new theory.

Marx's economic teachings are essentially a garbled rehash of the theories of Adam Smith and, first of all, of Ricardo. Smith and Ricardo had not had any opportunity to refute socialist doctrines, as these were advanced only after their death. So Marx let them alone. But he vented his full indignation upon their successors who had tried to analyze the socialist schemes critically. He ridiculed them, calling them "vulgar economists" and "sycophants of the bourgeoisie." And as it was imperative for him to defame them, he contrived his ideology scheme.

These "vulgar economists" are, because of their bourgeois background, constitutionally unfit to discover truth. What their reasoning produces can only be ideological, that is, as Marx employed the term "ideology," a distortion of truth serving the class interests of the bourgeoisie. There is no need to refute their chains of argument by discursive reasoning and critical analysis. It is enough to unmask their bourgeois background and thereby the necessarily "ideological" character of their doctrines. They are wrong because they are bourgeois. No proletarian must attach any importance to their speculations.

To conceal the fact that this scheme was invented expressly to discredit the economists, it was necessary to elevate it to the dignity of a general epistemological law valid for all ages and for all branches of knowledge. Thus the ideology doctrine became the nucleus of Marxian epistemology. Marx and all his disciples concentrated their efforts upon the justification and exemplification of this makeshift. They did not shrink from any absurdity. They interpreted all philosophical systems, physical and biological theories, all literature, music, and art from the "ideological" point of view. But, of course, they were not consistent enough to assign to their own doctrines merely ideological character. The Marxian tenets, they implied, are not ideologies. They are a foretaste of the knowledge of the future classless society which, freed from the fetters of class conflicts, will be in a position to conceive pure knowledge, untainted by ideological blemishes.

Thus we can understand the thymological motives that led Marx to his ideology doctrine. Yet this does not answer the question why an ideological distortion of truth should be more advantageous to the interests of a class than a correct doctrine. Marx never ventured to explain this, probably aware that any attempt to would entangle him in an inextricable jumble of absurdities and contradictions.

There is no need to emphasize the ridiculousness of contending that an ideological physical, chemical, or therapeutical doctrine could be more advantageous for any class or individual than a correct one. One may pass over in silence the declarations of the Marxians concerning the ideological character of the theories developed by the bourgeois Mendel, Hertz, Planck, Heisenberg, and Einstein. It is sufficient to scrutinize the alleged ideological character of bourgeois economics.

As Marx saw it, their bourgeois background impelled the classical economists to develop a system from which a justification of the unfair claims of the capitalist exploiters must logically follow. (In this he contradicts himself, as he drew from the same system just the opposite conclusions.) These theorems of the classical economists from which the apparent justification of capitalism could be deduced were the theorems which Marx attacked most furiously: that the scarcity of the material factors of production on which man's well-being depends is an inevitable, nature-given condition of human existence; that no system of society's economic organization could create a state of abundance in which to everybody could be given according to his needs; that the recurrence of periods of economic depressions is not inherent in the very operation of an unhampered market economy but, on the contrary, the necessary outcome of government's interfering with business with the spurious aim of lowering the rate of interest and making business boom by inflation and credit expansion.

But, we must ask, of what use, from the very Marxian point of view, could such a justification of capitalism be for the capitalists? They themselves did not need any justification for a system which — according to Marx — while wronging the workers was beneficial to themselves. They did not need to quiet their own consciences since, again according to Marx, every class is remorseless in the pursuit of its own selfish class interests.

Neither is it, from the point of view of the Marxian doctrine, permissible to assume that the service which the ideological theory, originating from a "false consciousness" and therefore distorting the true state of affairs, rendered to the exploiting class was to beguile the exploited class and to make it pliable and subservient, and thereby to preserve or at least to prolong the unfair system of exploitation. For, according to Marx, the duration of a definite system of production relations does not depend on any spiritual factors. It is exclusively determined by the state of the material productive forces. If the material productive forces change, the production relations (i.e., the property relations) and the whole ideological superstructure must change too. This transformation cannot be accelerated by any human effort. For as Marx said, "no social formation ever disappears before all the productive forces are developed for which it is broad enough, and new higher production relations never appear before the material conditions of their existence have been hatched out in the womb of the old society."3

This is by no means merely an incidental observation of Marx. It is one of the essential points of his doctrine. It is the theorem on which he based his claim to call his own doctrine scientific socialism as distinguished from the merely Utopian socialism of his predecessors. The characteristic mark of the Utopian socialists, as he saw it, was that they believed that the realization of socialism depends on spiritual and intellectual factors. You have to convince people that socialism is better than capitalism and then they will substitute socialism for capitalism. In Marx's eyes this Utopian creed was absurd. The coming of socialism in no way depends on the thoughts and wills of men; it is an outgrowth of the development of the material productive forces. When the time is fulfilled and capitalism has reached its maturity, socialism will come. It can appear neither earlier nor later. The bourgeois may contrive the most cleverly elaborated ideologies — in vain; they cannot delay the day of the breakdown of capitalism.

Perhaps some people, intent upon salvaging the Marxian "ideology" concept, would argue this way: The capitalists are ashamed of their role in society. They feel guilty at being "robber barons, usurers, and exploiters" and pocketing profits. They need a class ideology in order to restore their self-assertion. But why should they blush? There is, from the point of view of the Marxian doctrine, nothing in their conduct to be ashamed of. Capitalism, in the Marxian view, is an indispensable stage in the historical evolution of mankind. It is a necessary link in the succession of events which finally results in the bliss of socialism. The capitalists, in being capitalists, are merely tools of history. They execute what, according to the preordained plan for mankind's evolution, must be done. They comply with the eternal laws which are independent of the human will. They cannot help acting the way they do. They do not need any ideology, any "false consciousness," to tell them that they are right. They are right in the light of the Marxian doctrine. If Marx had been consistent, he would have exhorted the workers: Don't blame the capitalists; in "exploiting" you they do what is best for yourselves; they are paving the way for socialism.

However one may turn the matter, one cannot discover any reason why an ideological distortion of truth should be more useful to the bourgeoisie than a correct theory.

  • 1. Mises, Human Action, pp. 72–91.
  • 2. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Bk. Ill, ch. 1, § 1.
  • 3. Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, p. xii (see above pp. 107 f.).

Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was the acknowledged leader of the Austrian school of economic thought, a prodigious originator in economic theory, and a prolific author. Mises's writings and lectures encompassed economic theory, history, epistemology, government, and political philosophy. His contributions to economic theory include important clarifications on the quantity theory of money, the theory of the trade cycle, the integration of monetary theory with economic theory in general, and a demonstration that socialism must fail because it cannot solve the problem of economic calculation. Mises was the first scholar to recognize that economics is part of a larger science in human action, a science that he called praxeology.