Elementary Principles of Philosophy
by Georges Politzer

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1. Of what importance are ideologies for Marxism?

WE ARE accustomed to hearing that Marxism is a materialist philosophy which denies the role of ideas in history. Denying the role of the ideological factor, it only considers economic influences.

This is false. Marxism does not deny the important role of the mind, of art or of ideas in life. Quite to the contrary, it attaches a particular importance to these ideological forms. We are going to end this study of the elementary principles of Marxism by examining how the method of dialectical materialism may be applied to ideologies. We shall see what the role of ideologies in history, i.e., the influence of the ideological factor, is and what ideological forms are.

This part of Marxism which we are about to study is the least known part of this philosophy. The reason for this is that, for a long time, attention has been centered on the part of Marxism which deals with political economy. As a result, this subject has been arbitrarily separated, not only from the great “whole” which Marxism forms, but from its very foundation. For what enabled political economy to become a true science was historical materialism, which is, as we have seen, an application of dialectical materialism.

We might point out, parenthetically, that this manner of proceeding derives from the metaphysical spirit which we have so much trouble ridding ourselves of. It is, let us repeat, to the extent that we isolate things and study them unilaterally, that we commit mistakes.

Incorrect interpretations of Marxism derive, therefore, from the fact that the role of ideologies in history and in life has not been sufficiently underlined. Ideologies have been separated from Marxism. As a result, Marxism has been separated from dialectical materialism, that is to say, from itself!

We are happy to see that, in recent years, thanks in part to the work of the Workers’ University in Paris, through which several thousands of students have come to know Marxism, thanks also to the work of our intellectual comrades who have contributed to the cause through their work and their books, Marxism has regained its true character and the place which belongs to it.

2. What is an ideology? The ideological factor and ideological forms

We shall open this chapter, which is dedicated to the role of ideologies, with a few definitions.

What do we call an ideology? Ideology implies, above all, ideas. Ideology is a collection of ideas which form a whole, a theory, a system or even at times simply a state of mind.

Marxism is an ideology which forms a whole and which offers a method of resolving all problems. A republican ideology is the collection of ideas which we find in the mind of a republican*

   * By “republican” is understood someone who supports a republic, rather than a monarchy. (Translator’s note.)

But an ideology is not only a collection of pure ideas, supposedly void of any feeling (this is a metaphysical concept); an ideology necessarily includes feelings, likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, etc. In the proletarian ideology, we find the ideal elements of class struggle, but we also find feelings of solidarity with those who are exploited by the capitalist system, with the “imprisoned,” as well as feelings of revolt, of enthusiasm, etc. All of these elements make up an ideology.

Now let us see what is meant by the ideological factor: this is ideology considered as a cause or a force which acts, which is capable of exerting influence. This is why one speaks of the influence of the ideological factor. Religions, for example, are an ideological factor which we must take account of; they have a moral force of considerable influence.

What is an ideological form? This term designates a collection of particular ideas which form an ideology in a specialized field. Religion and ethics are forms of ideology, as are science, philosophy, literature, art and poetry.

Hence, if we want to examine the role of the history of ideology in general and of all its forms in particular, we must conduct our study, not by separating ideology from history, i.e., from the life of society, but by determining the role of ideology, its factors and forms, in and beginning with society.

3. Economic structure and ideological structure

In our study of historical materialism, we saw that the history of societies may be explained in the following sequence: men make history by their actions, the expression of their will. The latter is determined by their ideas. We have seen that what explains men’s ideas, i.e., their ideology, is the social milieu in which we find classes, themselves determined by the economic factor, i.e., in the last analysis, by the mode of production.

We have also seen that between the ideological factor and the social factor there is the political factor, which appears in the ideological struggle as the expression of the social struggle.

If, then, we examine the structure of society in the light of historical materialism, we see that its foundation is the economic structure, then, above it, there is the social structure, which supports the political structure, and finally the ideological structure.

We see that, for materialists, the ideological structure is at the top of the social edifice, while, for idealists, the ideological structure is at its base.

Consequently, we see that it is the economic structure which forms the foundation of society. We might also say that it is the infrastructure (which means inferior, or lower, structure).

Ideology, including all its forms: ethics, religion, science, poetry, art and literature, constitutes the supra—or superstructure (which means structure at the top).

Since we know, as materialist theory shows, that ideas are the reflection of things, that it is our social existence which determines our consciousness, we may say that the superstructure is the reflection of the infrastructure.

Here is an example by Engels, which clearly shows this to be so:

What happens in the economic life of merchants? They compete with each other. Merchants and bourgeois alike have experienced this competition, in which there are victors and vanquished. Quite often, the most resourceful and intelligent are defeated by competition, by a crisis which crops up and downs them. For them, this crisis is unpredictable, a blow of fate. It is this idea, that, for no apparent reason, the least clever sometimes survive crises, which is transposed in the Protestant religion. It is this observation, that some accidentally “make it,” which creates the idea of predestination according to which men must submit to a fate which is fixed, for all eternity, by God.

From this example of the reflection of economic conditions, we see how the superstructure is the reflection of the infrastructure.

Here is another example: let us take the mentality of two non-union, i.e., politically undeveloped, workers. One works in a big factory, where the work is rationalized; the other for a small craftsman. It is certain that both of them will have a different conception of their boss. For one, the boss will be the ferocious exploiter, characteristic of capitalism. The other will see the boss as a worker, certainly well-off, but a worker and not a tyrant.

It is surely the reflection of their conditions of work which will determine their conception of management.

This important example causes us, in order to be precise, to make certain observations.

4. True consciousness and false consciousness

We have just said that ideologies are the reflection of the material conditions of society, that social being determines social consciousness. One might conclude from this that the proletariat must automatically have a proletarian ideology.

But such a supposition does not correspond to reality, for there are workers who do not have a worker’s consciousness.

Hence, we must make a distinction: people may live in certain conditions, but their consciousness of it may not correspond to reality. This is what Engels terms “having a false consciousness.”

Example: some workers are influenced by the doctrine of corporatism which is a return towards the Middle Ages and handicrafts. In this case, there is a consciousness of the misery of workers, but it is not a true and correct consciousness. Ideology certainly is, in this case, a reflection of the conditions of social life, but it is not a loyal or exact reflection.

In people’s consciousness, this reflection is often “upside down.” To observe the existence of misery is a reflection of social conditions, but this reflection becomes false when one thinks that a return to handicrafts would be the solution to the problem. Hence, here we see a consciousness which is partly true and partly false.

The worker who is a royalist also has a consciousness which is both true and false. True because he wants to eliminate the misery which he observes; false because he thinks a king can do that. And, simply because he has reasoned badly, because he has poorly chosen his ideology, this worker can become a class enemy for us, even though he belongs to our class. Thus, to have a false consciousness is to be mistaken or deceived about one’s true condition.

We can say, then, that ideology is the reflection of the conditions of existence, but that it is not an inevitable reflection.

Moreover, we must point out that everything possible is done to give us a false consciousness and to develop the influence of the ideology of the ruling classes on the exploited classes. The first elements of a life conception which we receive, our education and instruction, give us a false consciousness. Our connections in life, a peasant background for some of us, propaganda, the press, the radio also falsify our consciousness at times.

Consequently, ideological work is of extreme importance for us as Marxists. False consciousness must be destroyed in order for us to attain a true consciousness. Without ideological work, this transformation cannot be realized.

Those who consider Marxism to be a fatalistic doctrine are, therefore, wrong, since, in reality, we believe that ideologies play a large role in society and that one must teach and learn the philosophy of Marxism so that it may become an efficient tool and weapon.

5. Action and reaction of ideological factors

From the examples of true and false consciousness above, we have seen that we mustn’t always try to explain ideas only by the economy, thereby denying that ideas exert any influence. To proceed in this way would be to interpret Marxism incorrectly.

Ideas can be explained, certainly, in the last analysis, by the economy, but they also have an activity of their own.

Hence, we see that we must examine everything before looking for the economic factor and that, while the latter is the cause in the last analysis, we must always remember that it is not the only cause.

Ideologies are reflections and the effects of economic conditions, but the relation between the two is not simple, for we also observe a reciprocal action of ideologies on the infrastructure.

If we want to study the mass movement which developed in France after February 6, 1934,* we shall do so from two angles, in order to demonstrate what we have just discussed.

1. Some explain this movement by saying that its cause was the economic crisis. This is a materialist, but unilateral, explanation. This explanation takes only one factor into consideration: the economic one, in this case, the crisis.

2. This reasoning is, therefore, partly correct, but on the condition that another explanatory factor be added: what people were thinking, their ideology. Now, in this mass movement, people were “anti-Fascist.” These feelings were due to the propaganda which gave rise to the Popular Front. But, in order for this propaganda to be effective, a favorable terrain was necessary. What one was able to do in 1936 was not possible in 1932. Finally, we know how, afterwards, this mass movement and its ideology in turn influenced the economy by the social struggle which they inspired.

* Politzer is referring to the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties (Socialists, Communists and Radicals) which came to power in France in 1936. The riot of February 6, 1934, was crucial to this movement, for it led first to a spontaneous grouping of the masses with the leaders of the left-wing parties and, later in the year, to an agreement “against fascism and war,” signed between Communists and Socialists. After the success of the Popular Front in the elections of May 1936, Leon Blum constituted a left-wing government which was to remain in power until June 1937. (Translator’s note.)

Hence, in this example we see that ideology, which is the reflection of social conditions, becomes in turn a cause of events.


To cite a more contemporary example, we shall take that of taxes. We all have an idea about taxes. The rich want theirs reduced and so favor indirect taxes; workers and the middle classes want, on the contrary, a fiscality based on direct and progressive taxation. So then, the idea which we have about taxes, and which is an ideological factor, has its origin in our economic situation, which is created and imposed by capitalism. The rich wish to keep their privileges and fight to preserve the present mode of taxation and to reinforce the laws in this direction. Now, these laws, which derive from ideas, react on the economy, for they destroy small commerce and the handicrafts and accelerate capitalist concentration.

Consequently, we see that economic conditions give rise to modifications in economic conditions, and that is by taking into account this reciprocity of relations that we should examine ideologies, all ideologies. It is only in the last analysis that we see economic necessities always prevail.

We know that it is the mission of writers and thinkers to propagate, if not defend, ideologies. Their thoughts and writings are not always very typical or straightforward, but, in fact, even in simple tales or stories, upon analysis we can always find an ideology. To make this type of analysis is a very delicate operation, and we must be very prudent. We are going to indicate a dialectical method of analysis, which will be of great assistance, but we must be careful not to be mechanical and try to explain the unexplainable.

6. A method of dialectical analysis

In order to apply the dialectical method properly, one must know many things. If you do not know your subject, it must be studied carefully, otherwise, your judgment will amount to only a caricature of the truth.

In order to make an analysis of a literary work, a book or story, we are going to indicate a method which may be applied to other subjects as well.

a) You must first pay attention to the content of the book or story you wish to analyze. Examine it independently of any social question, for not everything is derived from class struggle or economic conditions.

There are literary influences which we must take into consideration. Try to see to which “literary school” the work belongs. Take into account the internal development of ideologies. Practically speaking, it would be good to make a summary of the subject under analysis and to note down anything you found remarkable.

b) Next observe the social types the heroes of the intrigue belong to. Look for the class to which they belong. Examine the action of the characters and see if what takes place in the novel can be linked in some way to a social viewpoint.

If this is not possible, if it cannot reasonably be done, it is better to abandon the analysis rather than invent. You must never invent an explanation.

c) After you have discovered what class or classes are involved, you must determine the economic foundation, i.e., the means of production and the way of producing at the moment when the action of the novel takes place.

If, for example, the action is contemporary, the economic system is capitalism. At present we see numerous stories and novels which criticize and fight capitalism. But there are two ways to fight capitalism:

d) Once we have obtained all this, we can then look for the ideology, i.e., see what the ideas and feelings, the way of thinking, of the author is.

While searching for the ideology, we shall keep in mind the role it plays, its influence on the minds of those who read the book.

e) We can then conclude our analysis, by saying why such a story or novel was written at such a moment. And criticize or praise, according to the case, the author’s intentions (often unconscious).

This method of analysis can be effective only if one remembers, while applying it, everything which has been said previously. We must remember that dialectics, while it provides us with a new way of conceiving things, also demands that we know them well in order to discuss and analyze them.

Consequently, now that we have seen what our method consists of, we must try, in our studies and in our personal and militant lives, to see things in their motion, in their changes, in their contradictions and in their historical significance and not in a static, immobile state. We must try to study them as well in all their aspects and not unilaterally. In short, we must always try to apply the dialectical spirit everywhere.

7. The necessity of ideological struggle

We know better now what dialectical materialism is, the modern form of materialism founded by Marx and Engels and developed by Lenin. In the present work we have made particular use of texts by Marx and Engels, but we cannot end this course without pointing out that the philosophical work of Lenin is also considerable. That is why today we speak of Marxism-Leninism.

Marxism-Leninism and dialectical materialism are inseparably united. Only through the knowledge of dialectical materialism can one measure the entire scope and wealth of Marxism-Leninism. This leads us to the conclusion that the militant is not truly armed ideologically unless he is familiar with the entirety of this doctrine. Having understood this, the bourgeoisie attempts to introduce, by any means, its own ideology into the consciousness of workers. Knowing perfectly well that, of all the aspects of Marxism-Leninism, it is dialectical materialism which is, at present, least known, the bourgeoisie has organized a campaign of silence against it. It is painful to note that the official instruction is oblivious to this method, and that teaching methodology in schools and universities has not changed in the last hundred years.

If, formerly, the metaphysical method dominated the dialectical method, this was due, as we have seen, to the ignorance of people. Today, science has provided us with the means to demonstrate that the dialectical method is most suitable to scientific research. It is scandalous that our children continue to be taught how to think and study with a method born of ignorance.

While in their scientific research scientists can no longer study, in their specializations, without taking into account the interpenetration of the sciences, in this way unconsciously utilizing a part of dialectics, too often they apply the intellectual training given to them and which is infused with the metaphysical spirit. How much progress would have been realized by those great scientists who have already contributed to humanity—for example, Pasteur and Branly, who were idealists and believers—if they had had a dialectical training!

But there is a form of struggle against Marxism-Leninism which is even more dangerous than this campaign of silence, namely, those distortions which the bourgeoisie tries to organize even within the workers’ movement. At this moment, we witness the blossoming of numerous “theoreticians,” who claim to be “Marxists” and who pretend to be “renewing” or “rejuvenating” Marxism. Campaigns of this nature often choose for their foundation those aspects of Marxism which are least known, in particular, materialist philosophy.

Thus, for example, there are people who claim to accept Marxism as a concept of revolutionary action, but not as a general conception of the world. They maintain that one can be perfectly Marxist without accepting materialist philosophy. In conformity with this general attitude, diverse attempts at adulteration occur. People who still call themselves Marxists try to introduce into Marxism concepts which are incompatible with its very foundation, namely, materialist philosophy. We have seen such attempts in the past. It was against them that Lenin wrote Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. At the present time, in a period of large diffusion of Marxism, we are witnessing the rebirth and multiplication of these attempts. How can we expect to recognize and uncover those who attack Marxism in its philosophical aspect, if we do not know the true philosophy of Marxism?

8. Conclusion

Fortunately, for several years now, and in the working class in particular, we have observed a tremendous thrust towards the study of the whole of Marxism and a growing interest precisely in the study of materialist philosophy. This is clearly an indication that, in the present situation, the working class has perfectly understood the justice of the reasons which we gave in the beginning for studying materialist philosophy. Through their own experience, workers have learned the necessity of linking practice to theory and, at the same time, the necessity of extending theoretical study as far as possible. The role of every militant must be to reinforce this tendency and to give it a proper direction and content. We are happy to see that, thanks to the Workers’ University in Paris, (Today “Université Nouvelle” [New University] 8, Avenue Mathurin-Moreau, Paris, France.), several thousand have learned what dialectical materialism is. While this illustrates in a striking manner our struggle against the bourgeoisie and shows us which side science is on, it also shows us our duty. We must study. We must know and make Marxism known in all circles. Parallel with the struggle in the streets and at work, militants must lead an ideological struggle. Their duty is to defend our ideology against all forms of attack and, at the same time, to lead the counter-offensive for the destruction of bourgeois ideology in the consciousness of workers. But, in order to dominate all aspects of this struggle, we must be armed. The militant can truly be armed only through the knowledge of dialectical materialism.

Until we have constructed a classless society in which nothing will thwart the development of science, such is the essential part of our duty.

Control Questions

  1. 1. Is it true that Marxism denies the role of ideas?
  2. 2. What are the different factors which condition and constitute the structure of society?
  3. 3. Using the method of dialectical materialism, analyze a story published in a newspaper.

Assignment for General Review
  1. How has dialectical materialism benefited you in the domains of thought and action?