From Socialist Worker (US), No.248, 24 May 1996, p.7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
THE FAMOUS 19th-century church hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful contains the verse: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God gave each his station and ordered his estate.”
Not too many people today believe in the direct intervention of a God that “orders” our everyday lives. But in the upcoming election, millions of working people will vote for the Republican Party – a political organization dedicated to keeping “the rich man in his castle” and “poor man at his gate.”
Between 1973 and 1995, the poorer 80 percent of working Americans saw their weekly earnings fall by 18 percent after accounting for inflation. Yet Republicans occupied the White House for 15 of those 22 years.
Though they are servants of the rich, too, the Democratic Party claims to represent working people – and it has the advantage of having leaders of unions and community organizations to help spread this lie.
But the Republican Party has never pretended to be anything other than what it is – a party that exists to protect and extend the interests of the richest 10 percent of the population.
How is it possible for such a party to ever win an election?
The answer is clear enough at one level – millions of people do not understand their own interests. They have a false picture of the society in which they live.
This is not a new problem. Throughout history, societies have been run in the interests of the rich, and the masses of people have been persuaded, in one way or another, to put up with this state of affairs for most of the time
Persuaded is the operative word.
Ruling classes have always had soldiers and police – or their equivalent – at their disposal. Without them – that is, without the potential or actuality of violence – they could not rule at all. But, except at times of great crisis, violence is less important to our rulers than persuasion.
For a class society to exist, both rulers and ruled have to have fairly coherent world outlooks that justify the existing setup – or at least make it seem like the only possible arrangement. These world outlooks are what Karl Marx called ideologies.
An ideology is not just a wrong belief. It is a system of ideas which takes ‘ into account a great many facts – but which shows me connection between those facts in a false light. That’s why Marx described ideology as “false consciousness.”
It is impossible for a privileged class to hold down the mass of the population for long unless sections of that population have a false consciousness.
Until recently, most ideologies have taken the form of religion.
The whole conception of religion – that, as the Christian Bible puts it, “God created man in his own image” – is the opposite of reality, but religion is not simply a fantasy. It corresponds, in a distorted and partly contradictory way, to the real world in which die religious lived.
Secular ideologies have largely replaced religion as the effective “world view” in industrialized regions, even among people who have church affiliations. The most important of these – notions of patriotism and “democracy” – have wide acceptance because they are promoted by the media and the education system, but they have an echo in the consciousness of working people because they incorporate some facts of everyday experience.
But other facts of peoples lives – for instance, corporate downsizing or the unfairness of the healthcare system – come into conflict with this world outlook.
This is why ideology is not all-powerful.
How do ideas change?
First of all, people are heavily influenced by the opinions of the people they work with. This is why the role of socialists is very important in developing resistance to the ideas that dominate the media and the education system.
Activity is the most important single factor in changing consciousness. In changing the world, people change themselves.
Ideology can be overcome by the combination of class activity and an alternative set of ideas to explain the world – socialist ideas.
Last updated on 6.2.2005