To attempt to describe the whole history of humanity is obviously impossible! We will limit ourselves here to a summary analysis of the most important stages of the ideological development of this history.
In the first stage of human development, i.e. the primitive community which knew neither production for sale nor exchange, human beings still made no differentiation between their own evolution and that of the natural forces which surrounded them. Evolving in a community which satisfied its needs in a direct manner, where there was no division of labour, where tools were, like food and housing, held in common, human beings conceived of themselves as an integral part of the human and natural milieu. This direct dependence that linked each person to the community and the natural environment led humanity to see and express itself in terms of a magical unity. The signs of this magical unity could be seen everywhere but the unity itself was more than these signs.
Thus language, which appeared early in history, became a magical link between human beings, their community and the forces of nature. This means of communication did not serve merely utilitarian purposes: it possessed a true power over nature of which it was a concrete and immediate expression, through the enforcement of taboos and interdicts. Certain hunting or gathering grounds could not be named or else uncontrollable forces were released. Magical spells were held to exercise a direct control over nature.
Human beings thus established a very close relationship between themselves and the surrounding natural world.
But if it is true that this harmonious relation between the material conditions of existence and the community expressed a fundamental unity between social life and the natural rhythm, between social being and thought, between concrete activity and language, we should not forget that we are still dealing with a society where the productive forces had hardly developed at all, where scarcity exerted its cruel domination over the whole of society. The community was at the mercy of natural forces, cataclysms (drought, storms, famines…), of an all—powerful nature which ruled and commanded. Man’s terror and wonder before the natural world on which he depended led rapidly to a primitive fetishism. Manifestations of nature (rain, heat, the wind, the stars etc), without yet really acquiring a divine nature, were understood as independent forces: active and terrible forces that had to be respected, feared and pacified.
It was not until this moment, when human beings abandoned a nomadic existence and began to cultivate the land, that the transition from simple magic to religious rites occurred.
“The hunter, when he sought to bring himself luck in the hunt, resorted to witchcraft and magic. The peasant, understanding the law which regulated the seasons, perceiving the normal succession from germination to maturity and then death, had to turn to other forms of thought to explain the natural forces. Thus we had the birth of myth and the conception of the spirit. (...) For the agricultural peoples the vital force resided in the natural elements, which contain both birth and death. There were many such elements with no logical link to connect them: they were seen as different aspects of a single force. These were the moon, the sun, woman, water, the snake etc (...) In all of these the vital force appeared as something separate, as existing for itself and real in itself.” (Herbert Kuhn).
This primitive fetishism of natural forces expresses the first attempts of human beings to explain the world and natural phenomena to themselves. But to the extent that they saw themselves entirely dominated by nature, human beings imagined a way to escape from or control nature through religion. Perhaps reality could be encapsulated in a single sacred concept? Agriculture (the first form of the influence of human beings over their natural environment) thus led to the consolidation in social thought of the illusion of the existence of a higher, essentially religious, power. Thus, as Marx explained:
“Religion is the self-consciousness and self esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again.” (Marx, Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of Right).
Later on the development of the social division of labour, the production of means of subsistence exceeding the immediate needs of the community, the appearance of a surplus… all these led to the disintegration of ancient social relations, to the dissolution of the primitive communities through the action of exchange. The communities began to exchange with each other the surplus from their production.
At this stage the development of the productive forces led to the systematic use of labour power and its exploitation through slavery. Thus agriculture, the exploitation of the land and the domestication of animals created a hitherto unimaginable source of wealth. This development led to the creation of social relations on a completely new basis. No longer were products and instruments of labour held in common; they became private property. With the division of labour it became necessary for men to procure the food and the instruments of labour which, naturally, assume the form of property. In the same way men became owners of a new source of food — cattle; and later on of a new means of production — slaves. At his side, woman, who has wholly lost her ancient matriarchal rights, remains merely the owner of the household goods. And parallel to the development of this great social division of labour arises the first great division of society into classes: master and slave, exploiters and exploited.
This growth of private property in the form of herds, slaves, luxury goods, means of production etc, this separation of producers from their products, the beginning of the exploitation of man by man, evidently leads human beings increasingly to become separate from nature and from themselves. The community is no longer a direct expression of the natural environment; it no longer consists of a series of egalitarian and harmonious relationships but on the contrary is now based on particular private property relationships. The individual gradually loses his objective and ancestral links with the community and his direct economic link with the means of subsistence. He becomes a competitor with his fellow man.
At this stage of its historic development the social organisation of the human community could no longer be guided by the will of the community as a whole. Rent by internal contradictions and irreconcilable social antagonisms commodity society was obliged to adopt a series of laws and rules which appeared to stand above society and whose aim was the maintenance of social order.
“And this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.” (Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State)
In the same way, linked to the appearance of this political and juridical structure, the dominant mode of social thought became that which represented and justified the interests of the dominant and exploiting class. This thought is no longer the direct reflection of practical activity, no longer maintains the same intimate contact with the collective will; it is characterised, on the contrary, by the distance which it seeks to place between itself and reality. The ideas which in the primitive community were an expression of the language of real life became in commodity society the ideas of the dominant class.
Thus there arose at the same time as the political superstructure an ideological superstructure.
This new division of society into classes was thus justified and declared eternal by the dominant class. The reality of exploitation was veiled; the particular interests of a privileged minority were presented as the interests of society as a whole and as the precondition for progress. The division between manual and intellectual labour led to the creation of specialised strata whose role was the defence and development of these ideas.
In the years to come this justification of the exploitation of one class by another was constantly reaffirmed and strengthened. But the justification put forward was not always the same. With the development of the productive forces humanity acquired a greater capacity to understand reality. Each step along the march of progress, each victory of humanity over the domination of nature went hand in hand with the enrichment of ideas and of social understanding.
“Society developed and, during recent centuries, at an ever greater pace. The forms of labour are modified. The relation of men to each other, their attitude towards work, towards nature, towards the higher forces which dominate them, all these develop as well. And this is the origin of the evolution of our view of life and the world.” (Pannekoek, The Workers Councils)
Unlike any other animal society, even the most organised, humanity is not content with the simple unconscious reproduction of its life—activity.
The social needs of human beings grow with the material capacity for their satisfaction. Unlike animals human beings cannot respond to their needs solely on the basis of immediate satisfaction or on the basis of the infinite reproduction of a single process. They need an intermediary. Human beings must produce their means of subsistence but also make use of the means and instruments of production in an increasingly conscious way. Moreover, to accomplish this, human beings must develop their relationships with each other and transcend, more or less consciously, forms of organisation that stand in the way of progress.
The material transcendence of the old structures, of the old relations of production, is necessarily accompanied by the transcendence of old forms of social thought and of the dominant ideas of the past. This is not only because the development of the productive forces brings with it a development of social thought but also because a revolutionary class can effectively accomplish its historic tasks only by proving to the whole of society — in opposition to the class in power — the social effectiveness of the interests it represents. Thus each improvement of the material infrastructure of society corresponds to a similar development and enrichment of social thought.
Whenever a society reaches maturity from the point of view of material, i.e. productive, development, ideas, science, art and literature all flourish. Each step forward brought about by the development of social relations, all technical progress and social change, are marked by a corresponding revolution in the world of ideas. Thus one can say that capitalism represents an incredible ideological and material advance over all preceding Asiatic, feudal and ancient societies. The extraordinary impetus given by capitalism to technical and scientific progress demanded the systemisation of a rational and materialist analysis of reality if this progress was to be consolidated and maintained.
The triumph of this conception coincided with the zenith of bourgeois economic development.
Impatient to free society, which it had already conquered economically, from its primitiveness and old beliefs, bourgeois society embarked upon a rational critique of the old feudal dogmas. Already during the Renaissance when the bourgeoisie was gaining control of the Italian cities the ideological representatives of the bourgeoisie had challenged the sacred values of feudalism such as the immortality of the soul and the existence of a divine being. But even when bourgeois thought retained a religious character it tried to impose a religion, Protestantism, which was more accommodating to the ideas of usury and interest.
Everywhere the bourgeoisie imposed new relations of production based, not on the direct dependence of the serf on the feudal lord but on the conception of juridical equality, on the existence of individuals who were ‘free’ to sell their labour power on the market. This was the basis of capitalist social relationships which was now conquering the old superstitions… and was to conquer the world.
“Almost overnight the world grew nearly ten times larger; instead of a quarter of a hemisphere the whole terrestrial globe now stretched out before the western Europeans who rushed to take possession of all the remaining corners. At the same time as the narrow boundaries around the country of origin fell away so too did the thousand year old fetters of medieval thought. An infinitely broader horizon opened up to man’s physical and mental gaze.” (Engels, Origin of the Family)
This mental awakening, this increased capacity to understand reality, physical, natural and human phenomena... the origins of all this lie in the economic power of the bourgeoisie; in the impetus given by bourgeois society to the means of production and productive technique. Scientific materialism is the ideological expression of this growing capacity to ‘master’ nature and understand its laws.
“Nature remains a ‘realm of necessity’ on which man depends. But he is capable of regulating this dependence in a rational way inasmuch as his knowledge of its laws improves. And he obtains this knowledge from the socialisation of nature, i.e. from his own practical transformation of nature in production.” F. Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism)
But this understanding was limited since:
- the development of the productive forces was still insufficient for human beings to satisfy their social needs. Under capitalism the relationship between humanity and nature was broken, soiled and polluted. Capitalism had socialised production but not the mode of appropriation of production.
— the bourgeoisie, being an exploiting class, is forced to conceal the reality of this exploitation. Above all it is unable to recognise the historical and transitory nature of every mode of production. These illusions permeate bourgeois ideology.
“The bourgeoisie were the first to recognise the economy as a total process, operating under a unified set of laws. It was capitalism that had brought about this unity and created a coherent society in contrast to the particularity of all earlier social orders. But these laws appear to the bourgeoisie to be natural laws, which depend on the lack of consciousness of their participants. If the bourgeoisie were to recognise these laws as social and historical this would also mean that it would have to recognise its own domination as historically limited. Class interest and class consciousness contradict each other...
“But this fact alone cannot account for the ideological nature of the consciousness which springs from the social position of the bourgeoisie. There is a much more decisive contradiction which is that between social production and private appropriation. The means of production are produced socially and for society but are in the hands of individual capitalists. ‘Capital is not a personal but a social power’, but the movements of this power are directed by the individual interests of the owners of capital who do not have an overall view of the social role of their activity. The laws and the social function of capital proceed but ‘only over their heads, only irrespective of their will, without their consciousness’ (Lukacs). Private ownership of the means of production means that the only possible view from the position of the bourgeoisie is that of the individual capitalist; and to the individual capitalist the laws which result from the alienation of labour must appear to be independent of man.” (F. Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure)
Thus the objective limitations of capitalist production, of commodity production in general are reflected in the limitations of bourgeois thought. It is the recognition of these limits that leads us to differentiate between bourgeois ideology and the class consciousness of the proletariat. Certainly bourgeois ideology expresses an attempt to become conscious of the world. But this consciousness was already limited, and developed grave illusions. This is for the two reasons outlined above: the nature of capitalist production and the inability of the bourgeoisie to admit the transitory nature of capitalist production.
“The essence of commodity — structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people” (Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness)
In the same way the social relationships between classes appear as natural relationships between things. Moreover, separated from the fruits of their labour, producers see their social activity as independent of themselves and outside their control.
“All these consequences result from the fact that the worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself — his inner world — becomes. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into god the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence the greater the activity the greater is the worker’s lack of objects. Whatever the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore the greater this product the less he is himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently as something alien to him and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien... Political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labour by not considering the direct relationship between the worker (labour) and production.” (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)
This alienation must inevitably be reflected on the level of social thought. In fact “the development of thought is merely the reflection of the real development transported and transposed in the brain of man.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1.) This is why the material limitations of commodity production, which implies the reification of the social conditions of production (that is, they appear as objects, as things), are reflected in a corresponding limitation of social thought. Capitalist alienation is reflected on a social level so that:
— thought and science appear as essentially contemplative activities. Thought is like a ‘glove’ which is made to ‘fit’ reality or a cast that is moulded by, but does not transform reality.
— social relations are studied as phenomena obeying supra—historical laws. Bourgeois ideology has no place for human activity which could transform these laws, or transform humanity itself.
— the natural sciences were the prototype of an ‘exact science’ that, separated from its object, is restricted to the contemplation of reality drawing conclusions on the basis of an empirical assessment of the ‘facts’.
— thought is fragmented into a multitude of ‘specialist studies’ each with its own system of laws, independent of all the others. Totality is conceived of simply as the sum of these individual facts.
All this implies that ideology is incapable of understanding reality or the development of reality in a coherent manner. The different aspects of social life appear as particular facts, or specific situations, unrelated to each other. They appear as fixed entities, independent of human development. Reality is seen as an object and not as the product of human activity, perceptible and concrete. This is why, as Engels put it:“Ideology is a process which the so—called thinker attains without doubt consciously, but with a false consciousness.” (Engels, Letter to Mehring in Philosophical Studies)