Ideology as a Form and Mode of Human Existence

Milan Kangrga

The basic question in defining the concept of ideology, as it derives from Marx’s science, is precisely the question of the possibility of such a definition. This question raises a simultaneous question about the standpoint from which the concept of ideology is possible at all. What is the nature of a position about which something may be regarded, identified, and called ideological? Or even more precisely, if we are talking about the ideologicity of the existing or of the given world which, as much, imposes itself upon our critical faculty of inquiry, can that existing ideological world as such be at all approached from, or within, the very horizon of the existing? The question is, furthermore, vis-à-vis what or in relation to what does the ideological (consciousness) exist? Only from these points of departure is it really possible to offer a definition of so-called ideological consciousness as the very root, sense, meaning, and character of the ideological.

The traditionally understood and accepted concept of ideology as “false consciousness” (falsches Bewusstsein) contains an implicit meaning which, in all its possible definitions and connotations, necessarily leads away from Marx’s primary and essential standpoint. This is easily it and immediately seen as soon as we examine the criterion of falseness of this ideological consciousness as we seek to trace the various attempts that have been made to define it. [125/126]

This question is always posed as soon as we try to identify and affirm the opposite of this ideological (i.e., false) consciousness, since it to precisely this opposite which assumes the role of the criterion of falseness—of the ideologicity of consciousness (or knowledge). It is obvious that the first criterion of false consciousness (in other words, the antithesis of false consciousness) will be sought in the true, which is after all the natural thing to do. But the matter is not so simple as it might appear at first glance. For that which is true requires, in turn, a criterion of its own truth. Thus, how we understand the concept of truth depends, as we have seen, upon the definition of the true and the false—and in this case, of the ideological.

At this point, however, we must stress a point that is crucial to the entire argument. Namely, so long as the ideological is exhausted merely within the sphere of consciousness as such and consciousness reserves to itself the entire definition of the ideological, it cannot be expected but that the entire question is posed and perceived in a gnoseological framework (i.e., the theory of knowledge) and that its resolution is sought therein. Insofar as the concept of the true and the false—and consequently the concept of the ideological—acquires a gnoseological character, then the very concept of truth and truthfulness appears as a subject of investigation and definition for the theory of knowledge. But this is the primary, basic, and greatest error in the very approach to the matter of defining, explaining, and understanding the concept (Marx’s concept, that is) of the ideological. From this point there follows the entire traditional gnoseological mode of argument required by this position, which not only concludes but even starts out with purely positivistic assumptions. Yet with such assumptions the ideological is inconceivable.

In the gnoseological mode of argument, the criterion of the truthfulness and, consequently, of the falsity of ideological consciousness is sought in concepts such as the adequacy, correspondence, coherence, accurate reflection—and so forth—of consciousness and the object (the subject and object of knowledge), while truth is defined purely in terms of the theory of knowledge as a property of judgment about the object, in which case the entire matter is posed and pursued and left within the theoretical sphere of perception. This school of thought does not put the object itself into question, since it comprehends the object as a purely external thing which—contrary to Marx—is “immediately given from eternity,” and it consequently views the basic task of consciousness as that of accurately or correctly reflecting or perceiving that independently existing or (objectively) true given for what it is. This relationship of consciousness is then termed the truth about the object.

For this theoretical position, likewise, the question does not arise (precisely because it cannot arise) of whether, perhaps, it is not dealing with an alienated object with which it wishes to establish total identity, or the question of whether such a relationship of consciousness toward [126/127] an object so understood is not precisely an alienated relationship. As a theory it is incapable of posing this kind of question, which is to say that in this manner it remains within the framework of the present, indeed within the standpoint of existing reality, which serves precisely as its ultimate and sole criterion, since neither the object nor its own relation to it may appear in the form of alienation. For the simple or immediate given (for consciousness) can only be and remain what it is, and within this theoretical-contemplative framework there is no alienation. Alienation cannot be perceived from the sphere of alienation itself That which is comprehended and accepted merely as a given cannot be alienated, cannot be wrong or false, and accordingly not ideological, for it is precisely that given which is left only to itself as its own criterion. Had Marx adopted this point of view, he would never have arrived, for instance, at the concept of the commodity (“the fetishistic character of the commodity”), for he would not have been able to perceive in the commodity a social, historical, and human relation. He would instead have always had before him merely a simple thing as an ordinary fact, as an immediate material object of theoretical consciousness standing before him in its given form and not as a “sensible-sensuous” thing. Marx was not, however, a mere theoretician, and his attitude toward theory as theory is well known, as is his critique of philosophy, which was unable to resolve the crucial question of theory precisely because it is not a task of knowledge but of living, while philosophy comprehends it only as a theoretical task.

With regard to the above-mentioned relationship of consciousness toward its object as conceived in theory, which is of fundamental importance to our discussion, we shall cite Marx’s well-known passage:

But man is not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being. That is to say, he is a being for himself. Therefore he is a species being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing. Therefore, human objects are not natural objects as they immediately present themselves, and neither is human sense as it immediately is—as it is objectively—human sensibility, human objectivity. Neither nature objectively nor nature subjectively is directly given in a form adequate to the human being. [1]

If, moreover, on the one hand the object never presents itself immediately to human sense and human consciousness—for in this case it would be neither human sensibility nor human objectivity (it would, that is, be no objectivity at all, for only man can relate to an object)—and on the other hand if consciousness, thought, and knowledge are not and cannot be the exclusive object of theoretical discussion, then it also follows that the resolution of the problem of so-called false consciousness (thinking and knowing) cannot be sought in the framework of a [127/128] single theory, in this case the theory of knowledge. Therefore neither the definition of the ideological nor the problem of ideology is a subject for gnoseology. The question now is: What does all this mean?

We must first keep one more important thing in mind, however Namely, since, according to Marx, “consciousness can never be anything other than conscious being” or the consciousness of being (Bewusstsein = bewusstes sein) then in both meaning and orientation and indeed on the basis of the essential assumptions underlying Marx’s philosophical thought, consciousness can be either the consciousness of true being or the consciousness of untrue being. At this point it is necessary to stress that indeed only this manner of posing the question, in order for it to be possible at all, points to the necessity of surpassing and transcending the existing world and existing reality, for within them this question could not even be posed. If, moreover, being determines consciousness, then true consciousness corresponds to true being while untrue consciousness corresponds to untrue being. But the being of people is their sociohistorical process, in which and by virtue of which they become what they are. In the first instance we would be left with an a priori truth of existence, as an idea, an ideal, or an abstractly presupposed harmony in an eschatological sense. But if, in contrast, untrue consciousness corresponds to untrue being, then it represents the accuracy of that untrue being, which is to say that it is adequate to that being, it is its measure, it coincides with it and is the accurate, correct consciousness of untrue being. We thus have before us an untrue or false conscious being (but not false consciousness as such), in the form of its separation into an autonomous realm of material existence (which moves in accordance with its own laws), independent of an equally autonomous and, in this sense, abstract realm of consciousness, which reflects it (that existence) as it is for itself and in itself. Only thus, that is, on the assumption of the division of conscious being into the autonomous and independent movement and unfolding of alienated material existence (for which the equally abstract categories of necessity, chance, determinism, etc., are then valid) on the one hand, and into consciousness opposed to being which now moves in accordance with its own (gnoseological, logical, theoretical, scientific, etc.) laws on the other—only thus does consciousness become ideological consciousness. But this is precisely an ideological position; it is precisely the correct definition of the ideological.

In this relation of being and consciousness (being and thought), which in their separateness are always in unity, there is nevertheless a third possibility as well, namely, that consciousness does not correspond to untrue being (in this case to specific historicosocial facticity), that it is not adequate to it, but that it opposes that being and impedes it since it is born of a desire to change it. It can do so because it always derives from the primary unity of being and needing, being and thinking, which is its real source and root. This is the standpoint of that which is not yet but [128/129] which can and should be, the standpoint of that which is different from what already (as the untrue) is; the possibility of freedom as the epochal-critical standpoint of revolution, the true instrument of history. And this is precisely Marx’s standpoint and what makes it all possible for him to regard the existing state of affairs, that which is (being) as untrue, false, illusory, alienated, and in that sense as ideological. This is, moreover, the standpoint of the future, of that which is not yet, and existing (sociohistorical) reality cannot play the role of the criterion of falseness or untruthfulness here because it is always cast into question anew so it may be something that is humanly real, relevant, and meaningful, so it may become on the basis of the conscious-free and purposeful active relation of subjectivity which produces it and changes it in a specific direction.

In his critique of Hegel’s philosophy, Marx offered an exquisite formulation of the ideological character of philosophy, and thereby a crucial definition of all forms of ideology:

Therefore, that which constitutes the essence of philosophy—the alienation of man in his knowing of himself, or alienated science thinking itself—Hegel grasps as its [true] essence . . . [2]

This passage makes explicit the essence of philosophy as ideology. Therefore we might, paraphrasing Marx, say as follows: That which constitutes the essence of ideology (i.e., philosophy, politics, morality, art, religion, the state, law, as well as political economy, sociology, the natural sciences, etc.)—the alienation of man in his recognition or knowing of himself in these forms, or alienated knowledge thinking itself—is viewed from an ideological standpoint as natural, normal, self-evident, and moreover true to the essence of man, his world, and his life. In this way his alienated or illusory being, identified with material existence, becomes “true” in its ideological aspects merely by virtue of its being adequately recognized or reflected as such. Consequently ideology is not false consciousness (about some presupposed object which exists in itself, or which is neutral toward that consciousness, or which is even true as such) but is rather accurate consciousness, adequate knowing, knowledge in the measure of alienated (untrue) being (and existence), which moreover coincides with the illusoriness of human life; or more precisely, ideology is its existential untruth. Ideology thus corresponds to alienated human existence as its own self-knowledge within alienation, as the knowledge of one’s own alienated condition which poses, regards, acknowledges, accepts, and reflects that condition as one’s true being, as one’s true human determination, as real life, as the sole possible sense and form of human existence. It appropriates and adopts the existential lie about the adequacy between untrue consciousness and untrue (alienated, illusory) being as its own truth.

What is, moreover, decisive here for the very definition of the [129/130] ideological is that it remains within the framework of the present. The ideological is precisely the theoretical and practical affirmation of that which has been and that which simply is (in the form of the “given object”) as its sole spiritual, intellectual, and existential field of vision and action, in which case the present appears as the real basis, the sole possibility, and the true perspective of human activity. This is the real horizon of the ideological manner of living, thinking, and knowing, a horizon which as such becomes visible and problematical only once it is genuinely—practically and historically—transcended and once one is situated in the standpoint of the future, which casts a true light on the present as alienated and ideological and as in essence untrue. Since, moreover, it is the present that is the medium of the ideological, the fundamental definition of ideology consists in the self-affirmation of one’s own alienated condition as the essence of true being. Ideology, consequently, is a form and mode of human existence which is thought, lived, and experienced on the basis of the assumptions and within the essential confines of the present as such, on the bases of the Old World.

If, moreover, ideology is existential untruth—i.e., if it is essentially an existential question and not a special question for the theory of knowledge—then neither a definition nor a resolution of the problem of ideology can be sought, for it is not to be found here in the area of consciousness and knowledge itself or even in the critique of consciousness as such, since as we have seen, ideology never appears in this form but only as conscious being. Nor, therefore, can the solution be contained within the framework of specific philosophical or scientific disciplines that would, in view of their concerns, regard this (ideological) consciousness as a cognitive act, such as, for example, gnoseology, sociology, psychology, the sociology of knowledge, psychoanalysis, social psychology, and so on. This is the only sense and meaning which Marx’s Second Thesis on Feuerbach can have:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. [3]

Gnoseology, the dominant type of philosophizing in the modern age (from Descartes and Bacon to the present day), itself is both an index and a result of the specific alienation of the modern world from its historical eternity (praxis). Remaining exclusively within the predetermined confines of the problem of the coincidence of the subject-object (on the basis of the traditional adaequatio rei et intellectus), that is, in the framework of the question of the extent to which thought [130/131] (consciousness, knowledge) accords with its external object, it does not come to terms with the historically structured nature of the object, its character and its origin, nor indeed with its objectivity. Thus it does not come to terms with the very possibility of the object, which remains for it “something given.” It must exclude from its field of vision the question of its own perspective and therefore does not see that it is dealing with objects that are products of labor, that is, products of alienated human activity, and accordingly that it always deals with alienated objects (and moreover with an alienated subject-object action relation from which the object derives merely as a defined thing) and with empty assertions about the adequacy of an alienated subject and an alienated object. Thus the sole and highest level which gnoseology can attain is that of accuracy in alienation or, in other words, the confirmation of the correctness of its own alienation and bewilderment in the midst of objects as things that exist for their own sake and in reification as an essential untruth. It cannot, moreover, hold truth as its object when it is itself reified knowledge, for its basic assumption and point of departure and sole perspective (alienated being) is untrue. The gnoseological position is at base an ideological position, from which it cannot define or recognize something as ideological. Thus it is itself subject not only to critical investigation but above all to a radical change of the historical and social conditions that facilitate and produce it.

In this sense it must be stated that within the realm of Marx’s thought, gnoseology is not even possible, nor would Marx have been able to fabricate such a theory from his philosophical position, which consists precisely in the realization of philosophy. This is why Marx criticizes precisely those aspects of Hegel which still permit a gnoseological approach to the problem of truth, since Hegel himself still adheres to the assumptions of the traditional concept of truth as adequacy. Criticizing Hegel for his “false positivism” and his “merely apparent criticism,” Marx does so precisely when he addresses himself to the ideological nature of Hegel’s perspective. His remarks pertain just as well to every future positivism and neopositivism to the present day as well as to the ideological standpoint as such. For in this connection Marx critically observes, commenting on Hegel:

The man who has recognized that he is leading an alienated life in politics, law, etc., is leading his true human life in this alienated life as such. Self-affirmation, in contradiction with itself‑in contradiction both with the knowledge of and with the essential being of the object—is thus true knowledge and life. [4]

This means that instead of genuinely casting off and transcending the foundations of these alienated, hence ideological, forms of human [131/132] existence, gnoseology merely accurately and correctly recognizes, reflects, or knows as such, being left only with a “right” knowledge of the present, revealing itself for this very reason as typically ideological. It reveals itself to be ideological for Marx because its perspective is confined to that which is rather than that which is not yet, in which case any philosophy as a theory—and especially any individual science—has no ground to stand on since it has lost sight of the primary unity of being and need or, in other words, of being and thought, insisting exclusively on their abstract difference, that is, on the separation of theory and practice.

Since, moreover, the question of ideology is simultaneously or even primarily a question of the truth of being, that is, of true human practice, the problem of truth and the problem of ideology cannot be viewed exclusively as a question of true or false consciousness and knowledge nor as a question of the truthfulness, correctness, or accuracy of judgments about the object or of coincidence with the given object. Rather, the question of truth is a question about true human existence. Man lives, acts, relates—in a word, exists and becomes—either as a true or as an ideological and thus alienated being, and therefore the question of truth and thus of ideology penetrates to the marrow of existing reality itself and continually places that reality in question anew. That question can be posed, as we have seen, solely from the standpoint of that which is not yet but which can and must be, from the standpoint of the active future, of action as possibility‑that is, from the standpoint of historical practice itself. Therefore the real surpassing or transcendence of the present simultaneously through thought and action represents the essential historical-revolutionary precondition not only for the elimination of the ideological but also for the very definition of the ideological, which implies the very possibility of regarding something as ideological. Otherwise both the assumption and possibility of critical thought itself would be absent, with the inevitable result of remaining within the framework of simple positivism. And this would represent the essence of the standpoint which Marx opposed when he posed the question and problem of ideology.

Translated by Gerson S. Sher


1.   Karl Marx, “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole,” in ed. Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: 1972), p. 94.

2. Ibid., p. 90.

3. Ibid., p. 108.

4. Ibid., p. 96.

SOURCE: Kangrga, Milan “Ideology as a Form and Mode of Human Existence,” in Marxist Humanism and Praxis, edited, with translations, by Gerson S. Sher (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1978), pp. 125-132.

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