Mises Wire

Marx, Class Conflict, and the Ideological Fallacy

Our present cultural landscape is filled with the language of class conflict, ideology, bias (conscious or unconscious), and the politicization of everything. While there are many contributors to this, we can largely thank (or blame) Karl Marx and his theory of class consciousness and class conflict. While not necessarily following Marx in his economics, these concepts have captured the imagination of many, especially in the modern Western world.

The claim is rather simple: people are inherently biased in favor of their own “class,” whether consciously or unconsciously; therefore, whatever they claim to be “true” or “right” is simply special pleading in their own favor. In other words, people are not in search of objective truth, nor is this possible; rather, they are apologists and propagandists for the interests of their class (e.g., economics, race, gender, etc.). Further, any attempt to deny this is to affirm it because it exhibits evidence of the depth of the false consciousness.

Those who do not believe this ideological standpoint epistemology have been either frustrated or intimidated by this line of argument and wonder how to evaluate it or proceed. Is it a Mexican standoff? Would it be hopeless to even engage? Do the Marxists have a point because we are “stuck” and cannot communicate further?

In response to these things, we may engage in a simple counterargument—the ideological bias or class conflict view is self-defeating.

Ideological bias or class conflict views inevitably involve claiming that all people (including Marxists) are mere servants of their ideological biases and, therefore, cannot be said to possess objective truth. If that is the case, it means that proponents of class conflict theory and ideological bias are themselves only special pleaders and apologists for another class or ideology. They are claiming that they do not possess the truth but that they are slaves of an ideology and propagandists for that ideology. If that is the claim, they are inviting you not to believe them.

If, as is more common, proponents of class conflict theory claim that their analysis is correct, they are effectively making the claim that they (and their group) are not slaves to bias and possess objective truth. Each time they claim objective truth, however, they undermine their own position. Furthermore, if what they are saying is true, they are engaging in a fruitless attempt to convince people who they say cannot be convinced.

These simple inconsistencies have been noted by Austrian economists but are worth repeating. For example, Ludwig von Mises wrote in Theory and History,

Thus, the ideology doctrine became the nucleus of Marxian epistemology. . . . 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.

Mises noticed and exploited the fallacy that the Marxists based their epistemology on the claim that everyone else was slavishly committed to ideology and class interests but that they were not. I remember first realizing this in a college class where the teacher and students all spoke about ideological bias and class conflict, the impossibility of objectivity and truth, but saw no irony in the idea that they believed they stood outside of this context to assess it. Murray Rothbard evaluated this as the fatal flaw in Marx’s argument:

To Marx, each individual’s thinking, his values and theories, are all determined, not by his personal self-interest, but by the interest of the class to which he supposedly belongs. This is the first fatal flaw in the argument; why in the world should each individual ever hold his class higher than himself? Second, according to Marx, this class interest determines his thoughts and viewpoints, and must do so, because each person is only capable of “ideology” or false consciousness in the interest of his class. He is not capable of a disinterested, objective search for truth, nor of pursuit of his own interest or of that of all mankind. But, as von Mises has pointed out, Marx’s doctrine pretends to be pure, non-ideological science, and yet written expressly to advance the class interest of the proletariat.

Marx’s contradiction is that he tried to present a “scientific” socialism that could be objectively proven yet created an ideological treatise to advance a particular class. Marx’s problem is that he either cannot escape the ideological-class trap or that his theory of ideological epistemology is untrue. Lastly, David Gordon succinctly summarizes Mises’s critique of Marx by Marx’s own standards:

If all thought about social and economic matters is determined by class position, what about the Marxist system itself? If, as Marx proudly proclaimed, he aimed at providing a science for the working class, why should any of his views be accepted as true? Mises rightly notes that Marx’s view is self-refuting: if all social thought is ideological, then this proposition is itself ideological and the grounds for believing it have been undercut. In his Theories of Surplus Value, Marx cannot contain his sneering at the “apologetics” of various bourgeois economists. He did not realize that in his constant jibes at the class bias of his fellow economists, he was but digging the grave of his own giant work of propaganda on behalf of the proletariat.

Bad ideas are often not only untrue but also self-defeating. Far from being intimidated by the prevalent language of ideological bias and class conflict, we should recognize that these arguments contain their own destruction. As I often tell my students, “It was very nice of Marx to not only tell us his ideas but also to tell us why his ideas are wrong. That’s a lot of extra work, and he didn’t have to do that. We should be thankful.”

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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