Marx and Engels: on the relationship between the ruling class and the ruling ideas


The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence of the relations which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for domination and where, therefore, domination is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an ‘eternal law’.

The division of labour, which we already saw above as one of the chief forces of history up till now, manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the formation of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood), while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts, but whenever a practical collision occurs in which the class itself is endangered they automatically vanish, in which case there also vanishes the appearance of the ruling ideas being not the ideas of the ruling class and having a power distinct from the power of this class. …

If now in considering the course of history we detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to them an independent existence, if we confine ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas, if we thus ignore the individuals and world conditions which are the source of the ideas, then we can say, for instance, that during the time the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc., were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc. The ruling class itself on the whole imagines this to be so. This conception of history, which is common to all historians, particularly since the eighteenth century, will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that ever more abstract ideas hold sway, i.e. ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to present its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and present them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution comes forward from the very start, if only because it is opposed to a class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society, as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class. It can do this because initially its interest really is as yet mostly connected with the common interest of all other non-ruling classes, because under the pressure of hitherto existing conditions its interest has not yet been able to develop as the particular interest of a particular class. Its victory, therefore, benefits also many individuals of the other classes which are not winning a dominant position, but only insofar as it now enables these individuals to raise themselves into the ruling class. When the French bourgeoisie overthrew the rule of the aristocracy, it thereby made it possible for many proletarians to raise themselves above the proletariat, but only insofar as they become bourgeois. Every new class, therefore, achieves domination only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously…

Once the ruling ideas have been separated from the ruling individuals and, above all, from the relations which result from a given stage of the mode of production, and in this way the conclusion has been reached that history is always under the sway of ideas, it is very easy to abstract from these various ideas ‘the Idea’, the thought, etc. as the dominant force in history, and thus to consider all these separate ideas and concepts as ‘forms of self-determination’ of the Concept developing in history. It follows then naturally, too, that all the relations of men can be derived from the concept of man, man as conceived, the essence of man, Man. This has been done by the speculative philosophy. Hegel himself confesses at the end of the Geschichtsphilosophie that he ‘has considered the progress of the concept only’ and has represented in history the ‘true theodicy’ (p. 446). Now one can go back again to the producers of the ‘concept’, to the theorists, ideologists and philosophers, and one comes then to the conclusion that the philosophers, the thinkers as such, have at all times been dominant in history: a conclusion, as we see, already expressed by Hegel.

The whole trick of proving the hegemony of the spirit in history (hierarchy Stirner calls it) is thus confined to the following three attempts.

No. 1. One must separate the ideas of those ruling for empirical reasons, under empirical conditions and as corporeal individuals, from these rulers, and thus recognise the rule of ideas or illusions in history.

No. 2. One must bring an order into this rule of ideas, prove a mystical connection among the successive ruling ideas, which is managed by regarding them as ‘forms of self-determination of the concept’ (this is possible because by virtue of their empirical basis these ideas are really connected with one another and because, conceived as mere ideas, they become self-distinctions, distinctions made by thought).

No. 3. To remove the mystical appearance of this ‘self-determining concept’ it is changed into a person – ‘self-consciousness’ – or, to appear thoroughly materialistic, into a series of persons who represent the ‘concept’ in history, into the ‘thinkers’, the ‘philosophers’, the ideologists, who again are understood as the manufacturers of history, as the ‘council of guardians’, as the rulers. Thus the whole body of materialistic elements has been eliminated from history and now full rein can be given to the speculative steed.

This historical method which reigned in Germany, and especially the reason why, must be explained from its connection with the illusion of ideologists in general, e.g., the illusions of the jurists, politicians (including the practical statesmen), from the dogmatic dreamings and distortions of these fellows; this is explained perfectly easily from their practical position in life, their job, and the division of labour.

Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historiography has not yet won this trivial insight. It takes every epoch at its word and believes that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 67-71


5 thoughts on “Marx and Engels: on the relationship between the ruling class and the ruling ideas

  1. Hello Phil. Let me run this past you?

    What we think is what we think. And what we think of our self and one another “historiographically”, and our authenticity – very important in considering our impact on the environment and one another, with our present day social, economic, environmental and population concerns for the future. Past now is the allaying of tradition, the economic window, burgeoning of the self; beyond multifactorial, relativity, quantum and kaos theory, political correctness and accountability has scraped past the woes of humanity and threaten its common sense. I think we have a neo-conservatism, of people clinging for clinging sake to “their practical position in life, their job, and the division of labour” divided down to generation and gender, and ruled, not by people, conspiritors or classes of people, but by systems in institutions running on hyper drive.

    The individual self is avoided in science, to ensure objective data and analysis. Numbers are needed for statistical validity. Philosophy recognises a conundrum in approaching the actual self from a notion of self. Mind matter spilt continues in phenomenology with the intentional conscious and a fundamental being (Dasein). Neuroscience can explain perception and what is experienced, but the subjective experience itself and the subject that is self is beyond it with the “hard problem” of the consciousness (Chalmers). In investigating (science) and in considering (philosophy) the self escapes us.

    In all human endeavours we are hitting an exponential wall, a Tsunami wall, where there’s more and more work applied with less and less advance, and pile ups and plummets every where. It is our historical situation that impacts on Earth as well. Our mind and in matter, while the self still escapes us. As I understand Einstein warned, the mind that creates the problem cannot solve the problem.

    I believe the self who is behind our endeavours needs to be addressed, and it has to be beyond our traditional approaches. Our impact will end in our faces. Instead of just keep on going, surely it is already there – “what are we doing?” “what’s happening?” “who are we anyway?”.

    We have just survived and reproduced, and what validity we had on Earth among other beings and entities, we have obviously spent. While leaving fundamental questions unanswered, we have competed, trod on each other over “position in life, jobs, and the division of labour” – “what’ll we do?”. We need to redeem our self?

    I wrote a post “Neo-humanism”. I went into the details of what makes the self there, but there is no definitive self except as a concept in our mind. However, I believe there is a true self and a whole self who projects our self-s. I’ve touched on this with you already, I know. It is not just a theory, or a poetic dream. The art work you may have come across are depictions of our projected actuality, and our actuality changes, including state of consciousness, nature of experience, sense of self, and with the whole body – who becomes more integrated and more present, the whole person changes, as sensed from the outside. I understand it in terms of as his/her projected parts become integral parts.

    We need to address the self. There is a witness to recognise the conscious, deeper being and our being self-conscious. The whole body from beyond the self projects the self, and is a perfect reference for considering the self who thinks and feels he is doing and being, breathing, feeling and thinking. Apart from projection, I’ve come up with the notion of dreaming. It is easier to acknowledge our self in a dream than projection, because of the question who projects or does anything apart from self, and the difficulty with projection in the whole body encompassing our reality that seem to extend outwards.

    Here’s some references to explain myself some more that I placed as part of a reply to :

    A materialist in the sense that the Central Nervous System projects our reality. Dualist in the sense that our projected reality is separate from reality. And a neutral monist (just looked that up on wiki p) because the whole body from his or her Central Nervous System projects our sense of the physical world and our self that seem separate from it. Both our mind and our sense of matter are projection, as well as our inside and out, subject (“hard problem” Chalmers) and object, the phenomena of the intentional conscious and being.

    An existentialist in the sense that I exist beyond context, meaning and happiness, but to recognise that must be a conscious and a witness. Also, my freedom, and responsibility for that freedom does not rest on me, but inherit from the whole body of whom I am a projected part.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello tt4r, Greetings! You write that we need to address the self and you write with obvious passion. I admire you. My response can only be framed by my materialist perspective – on what basis do we address the self? From the recognition that objective reality is primary to/precedes consciousness, that consciousness is its product or the opposite – that the world is the product of consciousness, that consciousness is primary? I think that when one has resolved that question, one is then in a position to confidently consider the self (and many other subjects). I think that to do so, one needs an hypothesis – that either objective reality or consciousness is primary to the other – and then to continually test one’s hypothesis with reason against one’s experience and knowledge. It also requires courage to trust in one’s ability to think this through independently and arrive at a position. Best regards, Phil

      Liked by 1 person

      • Greetings to you too. And thank you for your response. Your sound foundations gives me confidence to lay my concerns out to you. Excuse the passion, and the volume of verbiage – I think I’m thinly “framed”. I too consider consciousness and the self secondary to objective reality. However, what is primary to our individual self and subjective reality, our notion and sense, “one’s experience and knowledge”, is one’s whole, the whole body who projects our reality, “our world” one may sense and our self, from his/her Central Nervous System. With this hypothesis a distinction is made between our projected reality and reality, our world that may be an indication of reality, the “objective reality” where the whole body is. Also, the self is distinguished from the whole self as his/ her projected part. “The world” refers to a world “we” are in that we may sense. I distinguish it from, let me call it, the real world or simply reality that the whole body is in, and “we” must be qualified either whole self or (projected) self.
        It is frustrating for me, because these distinctions are not made in language use and obviously world views. Yet we try to address our selves, one another and the world. We flit between different self-s, not just dependant on mood or circumstance, but fundamentally different – in the experience, having an experience, the conscious, existence, and witness – while we play with notions of being a consistent or definitive, authentic or real identity. I do “reason against experience and knowledge”. I understand alienation and conflict, pursue a relation with the whole body (similar to Hagel, alienation, relation with reality, and Geist) I belong to who is human and next to other whole entities in reality, be they in their minds (and tending to be isolated from their whole) and primary to my sense of them, from the position I’ve out lined.
        I’ll leave it at that, this time! Thanks again, Tach


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