I was recently reading Jerome McGann’s book Romantic Ideology and he opens it with a discussion which concentrates on the different notions of ideology outlined in Marx’s German Ideology. It prompted me to look at Marx’s book which I haven’t read in fifteen to twenty years. It surprised me how much my response has changed over time. I am not nearly so repelled by what Marx so spitefully refers to as German ideology and not nearly so convinced by his arguments. Now, to be honest, over the past twenty years I have come to realize just how biased and disrespectful Marx was in his attacks on anyone with whom he disagreed, and this has tainted my appreciation of Marx. The truth of the matter is that as much as I respect the contribution that Marx made to modern thought he was very much part of the traditional, macho driven political discourse of the West, which is highly patriarchal, combative, and often lacks discursive honesty. In fact, given Marx’s attitudes in his confrontation with the supporters of Bakunin, I think we can safely, and sadly, say that Marx would not be out of place in contemporary politics. Having said that, I don’t think my opinion about Marx the man is entirely responsible for my changing views of German Ideology. For a number of reasons I just don’t find Marx’s idea of materialist view of ideology very convincing any more.
The biggest problem, the way I have come to see it, is that even if Marx was right, he was still wrong. Let’s imagine that Marx was correct in his formulation that almost everything about how we see and understand the world is a kind of superstructural edifice built up upon the material conditions in which we live. If so, then ideologies are, in the simplest terms, ephemeral constructs that pass away as material conditions change. As William Jameson said in his remarkable book, The Political Unconscious, even Marxism itself is a passing ideology that interprets the world according to its historical time and place. Or as Althusser, one of Jameson’s mentors put it; Everything is Ideology. But if this is so, then our thoughts have no transcendent capabilities. The problem is that, in the end, this is not a very useful philosophy. It would be as though we had conclusively proven the case for determinism. But then what? If we learn that all our acts are determined by material conditions and there are no emergent properties to consciousness, what can we possibly do with this knowledge? It is, in essence, utterly useless information. Similarly, if Marx’s approach to ideology is correct, what usefulness could we generate from this supposed wisdom? It is just a kind of ultimate disenchantment of our psyche.
Now, keep in mind that I do not believe that one must necessarily adopt Marx’s notion of ideology in order to accept a number of his other important political and economic ideas. I think that, despite what one may think, you could, for example, accept the idea that history is a motion propelled forward by a dialectic of class conflict without adopting an entirely materialist conception of ideology. And I am certain that parts of Marx’s analysis of Capitalism make a lot of sense regardless of whether our consciousness is entirely historical or may partly consist of emergent properties. In the final analysis, I think that this dilemma, like the problem of determinism, is indeterminable anyway. I just don’t think that human reason, if such a thing really exists, is capable of solving such a problem.
In the end I find that I have begun to harbour a kind of instinctual objection to Marx’s notion of ideology. I am certain that we are, at least in part, prisoners of history. However, I can’t help but suspect that, at some level, we can access transcendental ideas, or at least transcendental feelings. The problem is that I think that these transcendental ideas are not necessarily accessible by processes of rational thought or discourse. And if this is so then we must look for other kinds of experiences in order to gain the greatest insights of humanity. Unfortunately Marxists, being children of the Enlightenment, are stuck in a rationalist paradigm and therefore give little credit to such Romantic ideas.