Dorothy E. Smith's Ideology, Science and Social Relations

Ideology, Science and Social Relations

A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Epistemology

Dorothy E. Smith



The article argues that Marx’s use of the concept of ideology in The German Ideology is incidental to a sustained critique of how those he described as the German ideologists think and reason about society and history and that this critique is not simply of an idealist theory that represents society and history as determined by consciousness but of methods of reasoning that treat concepts, even of those of political economy, as determinants. His view of how consciousness is determined historically by our social being does not envisage some kind of mechanical transfer of class status to class conscious- ness. Rather, he works with an epistemology that takes the concepts foun- dational to political economy as expressions or reflections of the social relations of a mode of production. The difference between ideology and science is the difference between treating those concepts as the primitives of theory and treating them as sites for exploring the social relations that are expressed in them. Thus, the historical rather than further undermining claims to knowledge, provides both the conditions under which knowledge is possible and its limitations.

Key words
epistemology ideology Marx social relations social science

My work and thinking as a feminist sociologist have been profoundly influenced by the understanding I developed of the materialist method, as it was first formu- lated in Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology. The interpretation of Marx’s method explored in this article originated in my interest in finding a method of inquiry other than those in which I had been trained and which replicated the objectifying androcentricism of the ruling relations (Smith, 1990a, 1999). In this article I present a reading of this aspect of Marx’s epistemology that differs substantially from how it is generally viewed. Though my reading has been close and carefully repeated and renewed over years, it is still one that examines Marx’s
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thinking dialogically, being focused on what he can teach me of his method of inquiry rather than on an explication of his theory.

In reading interpretations of Marx, particularly of his account of ideology, I found him judged to be contradictory, paradoxical, or even to be the kind of dope who does not realize that his theory of ideology invalidates the claims of his own theory.1 Very generally, his work is treated with a high degree of selectivity. People pick passages out and rearrange them. There is a proliferation of Marxes, the latest of which is Derrida’s (1994) spectral Marx. For each of them the Marxist text becomes scriptural, that is, the object of interpretation rather than the ground- work for, as Marx and Engels intend, a positive science of society.

I claim no special authority for my reading and I do not offer an interpre- tation of Marx in general. I have worked to understand and explicate an epis- temology for the social sciences that has been largely ignored. I do not claim for my own interpretation that it is the true Marx, only that within its limitations, it is faithful. I have wanted very seriously to learn from a Marx who has seemed to me to have something different to teach than I have found in most of his inter- preters.

When I started out on this study in the mid-1970s, I committed myself to learning to read Marx from Marx. Procedurally, of course, learning to read Marx from Marx is difficult, even impossible, because of that very ordinary problem of the historical dislocation of the text (quite apart from that other ordinary problem that I must read him in English translation). Also I could not bring to its reading a more than elementary knowledge of the background of the period in and for which his texts were written. Nor was I familiar with the philosophical tradition out of which his work emerged. I read naïvely and closely. Nonetheless I read thoroughly and carefully because I wanted to learn from him what he knew how to do as a social scientist. I discovered that he had things to teach me that I had not found elsewhere and did not find in his interpreters. This article presents those discoveries.

In what follows, I shall argue that Marx’s use of the concept of ideology in The German Ideology is incidental to a sustained critique of how those he described as the German ideologists think and reason about society and history. This critique is not simply of an idealist theory that represents society and history as determined by consciousness but of methods of reasoning that treat concepts, even of those of political economy, as determinants. His view of how conscious- ness is determined historically by our social being does not envisage some kind of mechanical transfer from ‘economic structure’ or ‘material situation’ to consciousness. Rather, he works with an epistemology that takes the concepts foundational to political economy as expressions or reflections of the social relations of a mode of production. The difference between ideology and science is the difference between treating those concepts as the primitives of theory and treating them as sites for exploring the social relations that are expressed in them. Thus the historical rather than further undermining claims to knowledge, provides both the conditions under which knowledge is possible and its limi- tat ions.

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My focus on the language or, if you prefer a more contemporary term, the discourse of Marx’s historical materialism, is not arbitrary. True, I have bypassed the deep embedding of his thought in the philosophical transformations of Hegel. I have, however, followed carefully his own careful attention to the discourse of the German ideologists as well as of political economists. Those who create new paradigms as Marx did must reconstruct the discourse in which it is written. Much of the work he was doing in the major period of transition in his thinking in the 1840s involved scrutinizing just how the ideologists wrote the social to find out how to write the social science he went on to pursue. I have sought to extract from this work and its later developments what I view as major methodological innovations that have been largely ignored in the social sciences.

A Method from Marx

Though there are extensive and important treatments of what Marx’s method owes to Hegel and of related topics (Rosdolsky, 1977; Althusser and Balibar, 1970), the aspects of his method that are more specifically relevant to the ground- ing of a social science as inquiry are less considered. Thus the form in which the object of inquiry ‘exists’ for Marx, in which it can be known, and with reference to which statements made about it can be checked out, remains unexamined. This is a fundamental problem for the social sciences. In the natural sciences, technology provides for the replication of specific effects in multiple settings and at different times. The notion of the replicability of experiments relies on this, but it is also true of the observational work of the biologist observing cellular life and society through the microscope or of the ethnologist working in the field. It is my view that Marx, at least in the critical period of his turn towards political economy and its critique, was very much concerned with this problem and that the important shifts in how he was coming to formulate the problematic of his inquiry during the period from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 through The Poverty of Philosophy (published in 1847) were made as part of raising the issue of the form in which society, the social, the economy, the mode of production, history, might be said to exist and hence be subject to inquiry/made examinable.

The German Ideology was a major step in the making of the new paradigm with which Marx and Engels went on to work. It was both a critique of those identified as the German ideologists, the young Hegelians, and a self-critique. It was not published in Marx and Engels’s lifetime. Perhaps for this reason, editors have felt free to treat the text selectively. At all events, most editions, other than the Progress Publishers Edition from Moscow, omit a lot, particularly the several hundred pages of detailed textual critique of the work of various ‘German ideologists’ that make up the later part of the whole. Since many of the terms and ideas found in the first part of the text refer to the critique appearing in the second, it is easy to see how, in its absence, misinterpretations are perpetuated. The following quotation from Raymond William demonstrates a characteristic misreading:

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What they [Marx and Engels] were centrally arguing was a new way of seeing the total relationships between this ‘open book’ and ‘what men say’ and ‘men as narrated’. In a polemical response to the abstract history of ideas or of consciousness they made their main point but in one decisive area lost it again. This confusion is the source of the naive reduction, in much subsequent Marxist thinking, of consciousness, imagination, art, and ideas to ‘reflexes’, ‘echoes’, ‘phantoms’, and ‘sublimates’, and then of a profound confusion in the concept of ‘ideology’. (1977: 60)

But in fact there was no confusion. The ‘profound confusion’ is in readers who have been confined to the first part of The German Ideology and did not have available to them or did not read the later sections in which a detailed critique (heavy-going, it is true) of the German ideologists is presented. When the first and second parts are read as a whole, it is clear that the references to ‘reflexes’, ‘echoes’, ‘phantoms’ and ‘sublimates’, are a satirical references to aspects of the thinking/writing of the German ideologists, in some instances their own terms, and mark major points of disagreement with their theorizing.

Those designated as ‘the German Ideologists’ represent ideas and concepts as if they were powers in and of themselves, whether external to or appropriated by individuals. The ideologists start with ‘consciousness taken as the living indi- vidual’ (Marx and Engels, 1976: 42), that is, consciousness conceived as agent. Society and history are understood as a manifestation or product of ideas, of ‘spirit’, or of essences such as Feuerbach’s ‘species being’. Hence reasoning ideo- logically about society or history means interpreting people’s actual life processes as expressing ideas or concepts. The concepts which interpret the social are treated as if they were its underlying dynamic.

Marx and Engels’s methods do not, as is sometimes suggested, invert the relation, substituting for consciousness a conception of ‘material life-process’ reducing consciousness to matter or merely ‘materialist’ interests. Their project is a new materialism which is not reductive. The Theses on Feuerbach in which Marx sketched the major principles of the new materialism developed further in The German Ideology, was clear in uniting an inert materialism with an idealism that contributes the ‘active’, subjective principle to the new materialism. The shift is from a materialism, exemplified by Feuerbach, for which ‘things, reality, sen- suousness’ are only objects (1976: 615), to a materialism of ‘sensuous human activity, practice’ in which subjectivity has its essential non-derivative place.

Certainly, in The German Ideology Marx and Engels insist that consciousness and the real-life activity of actual people cannot be separated. There are only ‘the real individuals themselves and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness’ (1976: 42–3). In contrast to a theory that represents morality, religion, metaphysics and the rest of ideology as independent of actual indi- viduals, they insist that:
Men [sic] are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc., that is, real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these. (1976: 42)

Examined in this way, Marx and Engels’s account of the relationship of
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consciousness to life begins to seem rather different from traditional interpre- tations. Consciousness is always and only the consciousness of individuals; it is embedded in the actual activities of people, in their social relationships, and in economic and technological level of development through which individuals subsist. Consciousness as social, that is, as it exists among people through the materiality of language, embodies ideas, principles, law, moral and religious beliefs, which are created in the context of actual social existence as it is lived.
At issue is more than a theory of consciousness. The object constituted in contemplation is declared inadequate as a basis for understanding society and historical process. The active subject is restored to real-life processes. The new materialism involves a practice of inquiry and development of appropriate methods. It is in the world, not separated from it, a positive science directly related to a political practice. The conception of ‘positive science’ which is implicit here has nothing to do with the positivism of traditional social science which constitutes an object world external to the social scientist. The new materialism evolves methods of thinking enabling the social scientists to address as scientist the same world of real active people as that in which his or her work is done. The basis of a positive science is the world existing in and only in the activities of real individuals. The new materialism represents a radical departure in method:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way. (Marx and Engels, 1976: 36–7)

Thus humankind differ from animals not by virtue of some principle such as their ‘species being’ (Feuerbach) but as they themselves in the daily actualities of their activities produce and live a difference.

The emphasis is on activities, practices, on what people do. Society, history, has no other form of existence. Investigation can thus begin with ‘real premises’ and not with abstractions. Its premises are people ‘in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions’ (Marx and Engels, 1976: 43). This is an ‘active life-process’. ‘Where speculation ends – in real life – there real, positive science begins, the representation of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men’ (p. 48). Hence where disagreement arises and issues of the truth of statements are at stake, they can in principle be settled by returning to an observable process – the actual doings of actual indi- viduals – to ask ‘is it indeed so?’

Subject and Object in History

The epistemology developed by Marx can be compared to the Copernican revol- ution in astronomy. Prior to that cosmological revolution, the Earth was assumed

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to be a fixed centre around which planets and stars revolved. Hence observations made from Earth ignored the position of the subject as a factor in the planetary movements observed. But once the central position of the earth was usurped by the sun, the position of the observer was located on a moving object. The observer’s position was in fact part of the same system of motions observed. Hence the observations must incorporate the planet’s motion as well as the movement of the other elements of the planetary system. Similarly, in Marx’s materialism, the subject does not stand outside the object, but is situated in the same processes as those which constitute it. The philosopher, by contrast,

does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given directly from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society . . . Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty’ are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become ‘sensuous certainty’ for Feuerbach. (Marx and Engels, 1976: 45)

The objects of contemplation of which the philosopher speaks (and which he sees, so characteristically of philosophers, looking out of his window) are them- selves embedded in ongoing historical processes. The same historical processes are also foundational to the very possibility of the philosopher sitting at his window (p. 46) and merely seeing a tree without having to think about whether it should be pruned, when the fruit will come in, what kind of harvest he’s likely to get, when it will need picking, how to preserve it over the winter, and so on. The object of contemplation is a product of ‘sensuous human activity’ as are the conditions which provide for philosophical contemplation.

In parallel fashion, the social differentiation of consciousness into ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ labour, or into ‘superstructure’ and a ‘base’, must also be understood as an historical product brought about and existing only in the practical activities of individuals. It did not exist originally (p. 42) but has emerged with conditions under which the production of ideas, conceptions and consciousness are no longer directly ‘interwoven’ with material activity (p. 42). The first step in the process of differentiation of ideas, conceptions and consciousness from material activity is the emergence of a priesthood (p. 50). The specific forms of conscious- ness which are criticized in The German Ideology are also a historical product arising from definite conditions and embedded in definite social relations of class:

We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in conse- quence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring indepen- dent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular, German philosophy is a consequence of German petty-bourgeois conditions. (p. 473)
Do not mistake this for a simple notion of ideas as class-determined. That ideas might be conceived as having an independent existence and ruling over the course

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of history arises in the experience of philosophers in ‘personal circumstances’ consequent on a distinctive division of labour in which mind appears as inde- pendent and as having powers over and in society. Philosophers’ practice is to reason from the world of thought to actualities and hence they work in ways that give the appearance of ideas as governing people’s actions or social and historical processes.

Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they had to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. (p. 472)
To philosophers the independence of ideas and of consciousness, the material and social form of which is language, is an experience of their working lives. The conceptual separation of consciousness and life is a product of their practice; it forms part of a larger complex of specialization in mental production which has its basis in class relations. Once the independence of thought has been established in philosophical practice, ‘The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into the problem of descending from language to life’ (pp. 472–3). Ideological practices of reasoning are expressions of their working experience:

Everyone believes his craft to be the true one. Illusions regarding the connection between their craft and reality are the more likely to be cherished by them [the ideol- ogists] because of the very nature of the craft. In consciousness – in jurisprudence, politics, etc. – relations become concepts; since they do not go beyond these relations, the concepts of the relations also become fixed concepts in their mind. The judge, for example, applies the code, he therefore regards legislation as the real, active driving force. (pp. 101–2)

Real people, philosophers or jurists, are at work; they are active in the context of definite social relations; their experience in those relations is formulated in concepts or theories; hence the concepts or theories reflect those relations. Here’s a way of interpreting the phrase ‘social being determines consciousness’. It is not a causal statement and consciousness is not external to social being but arises therein. Philosophers’ work divorces concepts from the activities of actual indi- viduals and their empirical relations and does not bring them into contact with those whose labour produces their subsistence. They experience the separation of ideas from practice as an effect of their work and the relations in which it is embedded. Ideology, as a practice of reasoning about society and history, elabo- rates on their experience of working in language as an ‘independent realm’.

Reading The German Ideology in this way does not support the equation of ideology with the ideas of the ruling class as has become the standard interpre- tation. Ideology is not to be defined as the ruling ideas of a class. Rather, it is a specific intellectual or theoretical form emerging under historical conditions which create a distinctive working experience for members of the intelligentsia.

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Ideology and Science

In reading Marx’s extensive critical examination of the ideologists’ texts, we find him at work discovering or shaping his alternative through explicating just what is problematic in the methods of thinking of those he characterizes as ideologists.2 He finds in them much to ridicule, much that is logically deficient and some- times, as he represents it, merely silly. But it is not these deficiencies that char- acterize ideology;3 rather, ideology is a definite practice of reasoning. The explication of that practice in The German Ideology is renewed in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). In the latter the methods of materialism are enunciated by contrasting them to what is there called metaphysics. Though Capital does not pursue this argument, the materialist method of inquiry as it was first formulated in The German Ideology is already fundamental to its procedures and reasoning and is especially visible in the grounding of concepts and categories in the social relations (mediated by commodities) arising in and coordinating people’s prac- tices.4

The critical focus of The German Ideology is on a specific representational competence that treats the actual relations coordinating people’s activities as if they were manifestations or expressions of concepts, as when the Feuerbach of Marx’s critique derives ‘all the relationships of men . . . from the concept of man, man as conceived, the essence of man, Man’ (1976: 69, my emphases). In this way, actual relations are represented as if they were derived from concepts and can be then interpreted as developing in accordance with a conceptual logic rather than as they actually develop. In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx turns the same critique on Proudhon’s method of treating the social relations of the economy as expressions of the categories and reasoning of political economy. It is a critique of a method or practice of reasoning and inquiry rather than merely a critique of idealist theory.

Marx works closely with quotations from the writings of the German ideolo- gists to extract and clarify the methods of reasoning of which he is so critical. Here, for example, is how he works from a passage from Rudolph Matthai:

Man’s struggle with nature is based upon the polar opposition of my particular life to, and its interaction with, the world of nature in general. When this struggle appears as conscious activity, it is termed labour. (quoted by Marx and Engels, 1976: 508)

Marx’s problem with this passage is not the notion of labour as a conscious activity. It is the method of reasoning that treats the concept of labour as primary or basic and the activity, labour, as its manifestation. He comments: ‘Having thus obscured man’s struggle with nature, the writer goes on to obscure man’s conscious activity in relation to nature, by describing it as the manifestation of this mere abstraction from the real struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1976: 508).
The very notion of ‘polar opposition’ itself is ‘based upon the observation of a struggle between men and nature’ (p. 502). He goes on to parody Matthai’s method in the following:

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First of all, an abstraction is made from a fact; then it is declared that the fact is based upon the abstraction . . .:
For example: Fact: The cat eats the mouse.

Reflection: Cat–nature, mouse–nature, consumption of mouse by cat = consumption of nature by nature = self-consumption of nature.
Philosophic Presentation of the Fact: Devouring of the mouse by the cat is based upon the self-consumption of nature (Marx and Engels, 1976: 508)5
Though ideology may begin with the real world, it proceeds by constructing a concept or theory that supplants the original and treats the original actualities as expressions or effects of the concept or theory. The cat eating the mouse becomes a manifestation of the self-consumption of nature. People’s actual labour is represented as a manifestation of the principle of polar opposition between particular lives and the natural world.6

Marx’s critique of the methods of reasoning used by the German ideologists is also a self-criticism. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is satu- rated with the same method of reasoning that he parodies in the ‘cat eats mouse’ model. Here is an example:

We took our departure from a fact of political economy – the estrangement of the worker and his product. We have formulated this fact in conceptual terms as estranged, alienated labour. We have analysed this concept – hence analysing merely a fact of political economy. Let us now see, further, how the concept of estranged, alienated labor must express and present itself in real life. (Marx, 1964: 115)

The procedure goes from the fact of ‘estranged, alienated labour’ to an analysis of this as a concept; the real life of worker’s estranged labour is then treated as an expression of the concept (Marx, 1964: 117). Below I have fitted the sequence of statements quoted above to the ‘cat eats mouse’ model.

Fact: the estrangement of the worker and his product;

Reflection: The worker’s estrangement from his product is conceptualized as ‘estranged alienated labour’;
Philosophical presentation of the fact: ‘the concept of estranged, alienated labour must express and present itself in real life.’

This critique is more than a rejection of idealism; it is a rejection of that subtler problem that had infected his own writing and thinking, the treatment of concepts as if they were determinants of the ‘real life’ processes in which they originate.

After the self-clarification of The German Ideology, Marx is able to develop the problematic of estrangement in a new way. The focus becomes the social relations whereby ‘man’s deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him’ (Marx and Engels, 1976: 53). This alien power is ‘the multiplied productive force, which arises through the co-operation of different individuals as it is caused by the division of labour’ (p. 53). It is a power which the Marx and Engels of The German Ideology describe as the ‘world

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market’ (p. 59). These powers and relations are the focus of Marx’s later explorations in ‘A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy’ (1972), in The Grundrisse (Marx, 1973) and finally in Capital.

In short, to summarize:
  1. 1  While Marxism has theories of ideology, Marx does not. His theory of the social determination of experience and thought is simply that people’s experi- ence arises in definite settings of their work and that ideological forms of thought are developed by people working in contexts in which language is experienced as an autonomous realm with power to influence or change the social.

  2. 2  For Marx, the concept of ideology criticizes a method of reasoning about society and history that treats concepts as if they were causal agents or deter- minants. Science, by contrast, does not take such concepts for granted as given entities but explores the actual social relations expressed in the concepts and categories on which ideology builds.
An Alternative Epistemology

Ideology and the scientific study of society/history are rooted in the same historical relations. Both begin in actual social relations. But although Marx and Engels have described the historical organization of class and occupation that make sense of ideological methods, Marx makes clear that the problem is in how ideology expresses social relations rather than the fact that it is produced under definite historical conditions and by a definite segment of the bourgeois class. Positive science therefore is not conceived to be invalidated by its location in class struggle or the situation of the revolutionary in the social relations of his or her time. ‘Positive science’ is indeed an historical science, not only in the sense of its topic, but also in recognizing that both subject and object are in history and that the relationship of knower to known arises in the same historical development.

Ideologies build on categories that express and are grounded in actual social relations. The direction of their thinking, however, moves away from an investi- gation of the actuality expressed and reflected in those categories:

Had [Stirner] understood the fact that within the framework of definite modes of production, . . . alien practical forces . . . always come to stand above people . . . [he] would then have descended from the realm of speculation into the realm of reality, from what people fancy to what they actually are, from what they imagine to how they act and are bound to act in definite circumstances. What seems to him a product of thought, he would have understood to be a product of life. (Marx and Engels, 1976: 263, original emphases)

Ideological forms of thought are manifestations of actual relations worked up in the realm of speculation in such a way that the actual ground of the concepts is occluded. The relations determine the categories, but not the thinker. The determination of consciousness by life lies in the activity of subjects, knowers,

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working in the already social form of language with categories which express actual relations. There is an actual organization of social relations which generates or determines what appears to people – the jurist for whom ideas appear to rule; the philosopher for whom reality is an object of contemplation – these are experi- ences arising in definite social relations that are given theoretical expression. The ideological forms of thought express these relations but reconstruct them ‘specu- latively’. The relations themselves are concealed behind the ideological screen.

The determination of thought by life is not a secret causal work behind the backs of individuals, vitiating the powers of judgement and will, but lies rather in how things appear, are named, spoken of, in the context of the social relations which constitute them. The everyday experience of the social relations of wage labour under capitalism expressed in the notion of a fair day’s wage (Marx, 1954: 503–6) is reconstructed as an ideological form when that notion is raised to the level of economic theory. Ideology is not a function of appearance as such but of how the categories constituting appearances as phenomena are entered into processes of reasoning which treat them as given and build theory on the categories, ignoring the social relations in which they arise.

The difference between ideology and science is a difference of methods of reasoning and hence of inquiry. Both begin in the same social relations but they proceed differently with them. Both have as their ground the categories in which actual social relations are expressed. Ideological methods of reasoning rupture the relationship between thought and its ground in the actualities of people’s lives (Marx, 1955: 91–2). Marx and Engels propose to work in the opposite direction by uncovering the social relations reflected in the ‘thought and ideas’ (Marx and Engels, 1976: 473).

An intimation of this procedure can be seen in how Marx goes to work on a passage from Stirner in which the latter explains the struggle ‘between the private interests of individuals and the general interest by transforming it into a simple reflection inside a religious fantasy’ (Marx and Engels, 1976: 262). Marx takes the same notion of a struggle between private interests and the general interest and opens it up for inquiry in terms of the social relations dominating individuals (pp. 262–3). Whereas the ideologist mystifies the social relations experienced as powers over against individuals as ‘holy powers’, the new materialists work in the opposite direction, generating questions about the underlying and actual social relations, opening them up for investigation. Answers to such questions are to be sought in the relations of a definite mode of production. They are questions which reconstruct inquiry into the contrast between individual and general inter- ests as an inquiry into the actual practices and relations of a mode of production in which such an opposition arises. Such an inquiry would also discover the conditions under which the concept appears as it does, expressing the experience of the social relations of a given mode of production.

Marx goes on to apply the same critique to classical political economy in which he finds analogous problems. Political economy also transforms categories expressing the active, energetic life of people into dogma by treating ‘the relations of bourgeois production, the division of labour, credit, money, etc. as fixed,

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immutable, eternal categories’ (Marx, 1955: 91), as ‘natural’ features of the world. Political economy takes them for granted. But for Marx ‘[e]conomic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production’ (p. 95). They trace the actual social relations of an ‘historically deter- mined mode of social production’ (Marx, 1955: 169). Though they locate sites for investigation, they do not open them up.

No category of economy or society is excluded from a strategy of inquiry that moves from category to the social relations it reflects. Marx applies it even to such general categories as the economy. In The Grundrisse (1973), he sketches an account of the emergence of the economy as a distinct ‘realm’ of social relations. Originally the relations organizing people’s dependence on one another in a division of labour were relations directly between persons:

[W]hen we look at social relations which create an undeveloped system of exchange, of exchange values and of money . . . then it is clear from the outset that the indi- viduals in such a society, although their relations appear to be more personal, enter into connection with one another only as individuals imprisoned with a certain defi- nition, as feudal lord and vassal, landlord and serf, etc., or as members of a caste etc., or as members of an estate, etc. In the . . . developed system of exchange . . . the ties of personal dependence, of distinctions of blood, education, etc. are in fact exploded, ripped up . . . So far from constituting the removal of a ‘state of dependence’, these external 

relationships represent its disintegration into a general form, or better, they are the elaboration of the general basis of personal states of dependence. Here too indi- viduals come into relation with one another only in a determined role. These material states of dependence, as opposed to the personal states, are also characterized by the fact that individuals are now controlled only by abstractions, whereas earlier they depended on one another. (Marx, 1973: 163–4)

The abstractions by which individuals are controlled are relations of exchange between people mediated by money and commodities. Differentiated and specialized, these are the relations we know as the economy. The category ‘economy’ expresses these relations. When, however, the category is treated as a ‘primitive’ of economic theory, the organization of these relations as well as their historical character are invisible.

Thus, the critique of political economy is a form of investigation that expli- cates the social relations and their dynamic as they are expressed in its categories. In Marx’s Capital, there are not two critiques, one of the work of the classical political economists and a second of the political economy which was the object of their thought. There is one critique which proceeds from the categories viewed as expressions of social relations. Rather than the ideological 

practices which cut the categories from their ground and elaborate theory on that basis, the material- ist method insists on returning to and investigating the actual social relations in which the categories arise.

An epistemology is implicit in these texts that is directly contradictory to the inferences made from epistemologies that, in situating knowledge, relativize it. Marx’s radically new and still largely unexploited epistemology for the social sciences represents the historical setting as foundational to the project of

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social scientific knowledge. The argument can be summarized thus: Historical development generates specific social relations; social relations are expressed in categories; the categories are the forms of thought in which the social relations come to consciousness. The developing social relations are themselves the ground of the categories or concepts in which they become conscious.

Consciousness itself cannot penetrate beyond the social relations of the thinker’s own time. Aristotle’s economic thinking, for example, was limited by the absence of a concept of value. He had indeed problematized the possibility of ‘the value of beds being expressed by a house’ (Marx, 1954: 65) but could go no further.

There was . . . an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour-powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities, a relation of equality . . . The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, in truth, was at the bottom of this equality. (Marx, 1954: 65–6)

For the materialist, the categories, rather than constituting dead-end primitives, are the phenomenal form in which the relations that they reflect become observ- able. Thus the historical development of the relations of production themselves create the conditions of their own explication.

Contemporary ideological practices have fetishized the commodity form, extrapolating from Marx’s extended metaphor and replicating precisely the ideo- logical move that Marx has sought to uproot. The commodity is a key concept which preserves his and Engels’s original commitment to a science that begins with actual individuals. The concept is central to the analysis of the distinctive dynamic of these relations to which people’s powers contribute but which they do not control. It is central in mediating the transaction between actual people and the abstract relations of exchange.

A commodity is . . . a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour: because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products of their labour. (Marx and Engels, 1976: 76)

Commodities become fetishized because the work that people put into their products does not become visible to others. Products are exchanged for products. One person’s work appears to others only indirectly as social relations between things (p. 78). ‘[T]he products of labour acquire, as value, one uniform social

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status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility’ (p. 78). The social science Marx created aimed to make observable the social relations concealed in the commodity as integral to a dynamic complex of relations among people in and through which their work participates in producing their common subsistence.

This is an epistemology for the social sciences that is radically in contrast to the methods that are foundational to neo-classical economics as well as to contemporary sociology and political science. It is an epistemology that constructs a deep connection between the categories through which we know the world as social scientists and the social relations organizing our everyday experi- ence. It insists, however, that we do not adopt a referential practice of reading from category to phenomenon. Rather, we have to recognize that it is the social relations of people’s actual lives, expressed or reflected in the categories that are, or should be, the objects of our inquiry.


The epistemology I’ve explicated here recognizes the categories of political economy as reflections of social relations; they are the forms of thought in terms of which people become conscious of material processes; they are in language and hence social. An intelligentsia, conditioned by its experience of the rule of ideas in their own work as well as by their lack of connection with the experience of those whose work actually produces their existence, builds theories severing the categories or forms of thought from the actual social relations they reflect. That is the ideological or metaphysical method to which Marx opposes the new materialism, one that grounds inquiry in actual people, their activities and the conditions of those activities. Throughout, Marx’s critique of the ideological practice of political economy insists upon the intimate inner bond between the categories of economists and the historical movement of production relations, the former being the theoretical expressions of the latter (Marx, 1955: 91).

On the one hand, Marx rejects theorizing that proceeds by treating the categories as primitives, projecting them into the eternal present that constitutes them as discursive objects, and, on the other, he directs investigation towards the social relations of people’s real lives underlying their textual representations in these forms. Perhaps most importantly the method he is putting forward as an alternative recognizes the mediating role of language concepts and categories as the forms in which people’s experience of and in the social relations of the mode of production come to consciousness. Language is not a separate sphere that sits on top of a material base like frosting on a cake; consciousness is not separable from people and consciousness is itself material sounds, writing and print; if it appears as independent of its social matrix, this is in itself a reflection of actual social relations in which people are at work. It follows then that work and how it is coordinated – the social relations of consciousness and organization – can be explored empirically as an integral dimension of the social relations of capitalism.

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Implicit in Marx’s thinking is a foundation for social science that holds that it is essentially historical. The history of capitalism, including the emergence of something we can call an ‘economy’, is itself a progressive transformation of social relations that ‘explicate’ the properties of that mode of production. The very exist- ence of economics as a social science depends upon the emergence of those relations that differentiate forms of interdependence among people as relations between money and commodities. The changing differentiations and specifici- ties of those social relations are expressed in concepts and categories. We do not know how to think them until they have already arrived and are shaping our experience. According to this line of reasoning, social scientific knowledge depends on an historical process of changing social relations that create the conceptual/categorical ground on which social science works. The changing social relations of an historical process themselves determine the forms in which they come to consciousness.

This approach offers, in my view, an exciting prospect for research that has not previously been addressed by the social sciences of this and the previous century. The method I’ve recovered from this examination at Marx would suggest that the emergence of a variety of conceptualizations of ‘discourse’ in the Foucauldian (Foucault, 1972) sense, ‘formal 

organization’, ‘institutions’, or my own of the ‘ruling relations’ (Smith, 1999) reflects the historical procedure suggested by the method I’ve recovered in this examination of the emergence of an objectified and differentiated complex of social relations of consciousness. Althusser’s (1971) own conception of ‘ideological state apparatuses’ has no basis in Marx’s theory of ideology but it is an attempt to draw for Marxist theory the lineaments of forms of the organization of consciousness that had existed no more than marginally in Marx’s day. The objectified relations that these various theories conceptualized were effectively not there for Marx. They are now, however, pervasive and powerful, increasingly dominated by capital and still significantly androcentric as well, of course, as being ground in class and imperialist relations. To follow the method Marx was developing in The German Ideology and in particular and carrying through in his later work, particularly in Capital, we should be seeking to explore the actual social relations that are expressed or reflected in these various conceptualizations.
In seeking a method for a sociology that could begin from women’s stand- point, I have built on the method of inquiry I have learned from Marx, the method explicated here. It tells us that the relations of ruling expressed variously by various theorists are produced in and organize the lives of actual individuals. A critique other than philosophic or literary is thus possible. Taking up the method of inquiry that Marx worked with, the relations of ruling can be inves- tigated as such (Smith, 1990a, 1990b) so that we can at least understand how they work and how we are at work within them.

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This is for George. Finally.

  1. 1  Martin Seliger (1977), for example.
  2. 2  This interpretation is, of course, in opposition to Derrida’s who writes of his ‘feeling’
    that Marx in his critique of Stirner scares himself, pursues relentlessly someone who almost resembles him to the point that we could mistake one for the other: a brother, a double thus a diabolical image. A kind of ghost of himself. Whom he would like to distance, distinguish, to oppose (Derrida, 1994: 139).
  3. 3  That Marx has no developed theory of ideology is strongly suggested by the scarcity of the term from his later work. For example, a search of the first volume of Capital on the web archive turned up only two instances. Here they are:
    1. [i]  Hence both the capitalist and his ideological representative, the political economist, consider that part alone of the labourer’s individual consumption to be productive, which is requisite for the perpetuation of the class, and which therefore must take place in order that the capitalist may have labour-power to consume; what the labourer consumes for his own pleasure beyond that part, is unproduc- tive consumption. If the accumulation of capital were to cause a rise of wages and an increase in the labourer’s consumption, unaccompanied by increase in the consumption of labour-power by capital, the additional capital would be consumed unproductively. In reality, the individual consumption of the labourer is unproductive as regards himself, for it reproduces nothing but the needy indi- vidual; it is productive to the capitalist and to the State, since it is the production of the power that creates their wealth. (Marx, 1976 #46: 537–8)
    2. [ii]  Political economy confuses on principle two very different kinds of private property, of [Marx, 1976 #46] which one rests on the producers’ own labour, the other on the employment of the labour of others. It forgets that the latter not only is the direct antithesis of the former, but absolutely grows on its tomb only. In Western Europe, the home of Political Economy, the process of primitive accumu- lation is more of less accomplished. Here the capitalist regime has either directly conquered the whole domain of national production, or, where economic conditions are less developed, it, at least, indirectly controls those strata of society which, though belonging to the antiquated mode of production, continue to exist side by side with it in gradual decay. To this ready-made world of capital, the political economist applies the notions of law and of property inherited from a pre- capitalistic world with all the more anxious zeal and all the greater unction, the more loudly the facts cry out in the face of his ideology. (Marx, 1976 #46: 716)
    As can be seen, both these uses of the term are in line with his use of it to identify a particular practice of reasoning in the social sciences with which his own scientific approach is in contrast.
  4. 4  See Derek Sayer’s (1979) fine study of Marx’s method in Capital. Sayer’s study comple- ments the views put forward in this article.
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5 A virtually identical critique of the ‘speculative philosophers’ can be found in The Holy Family:
If I go from real apples, pears, strawberries, almonds I form the general notion of fruit and if I go and if I go further and imagine that my abstract notion, the fruit . . . exists as an independent essence of the pear, the apple, etc. . . . I then pronounce the apple, pear and almond to be merely existing modes of the fruit. (Marx and Engels, 1956: 57)
Marx makes the same critique of Proudhon’s treatment of the formal logical movement of the dialectic – from thesis, to antithesis to synthesis – as the historical movement of the economy, the movement of ‘the impersonal reason of humanity’ in history (Marx, 1955: 94–5).


Althusser, Louis (1969) For Marx, trans. Ben Brewer. London: Verso/New Left Books. —— (1971) ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, in Louis Althusser Lenin and
Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, pp. 127–86. Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Etienne (1970) Reading ‘Capital’. London: New Left Books. Derrida, Jacques (1994) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and
the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.
Foucault, Michel (1972)
The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books. Marx, Karl ([1844] 1964) The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, trans.
M. Milligan, ed. D.J. Struik, New York: International Publishers.
—— ([1845] 1976) ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Works, Vol. 5: Marx and Engels 1845–1847.
—— ([1847] 1955) The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
—— ([1858] 1973)
Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, trans.
M. Nicolaus. New York: Random House.
—— ([1859] 1972)
Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans.
S.W. Ryazanskaya, ed. M. Dobb. New York: International Publishers.
—— ([1867] 1954)
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E. Aveling, ed. Friedrich Engels. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
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—— ([1846] 1976)
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—— (1973)
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—— (1999) Writing the Social: Critique, Theory and Investigations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
—— (2004, forthcoming) Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Palo Alto, CA: Altamira Press.
Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dorothy E. Smith is Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education of the 
University of Toronto and adjunct professor, Department of Sociology, University of Victoria (Victoria, BC). She has been preoccupied for the past thirty or so years with developing the implications of women’s standpoint for sociology, problematizing the objectified forms of organization and social relations characteristic of contemporary society, and focusing more recently on the significance of texts for the organization of power. Her published books are: (with Sara David, ed.) Women Look at Psychiatry: I’m Not Mad, I’m Angry (Press Gang, Vancouver, BC, 1975); Feminism and Marxism: A Place to Begin, a Way to Go, (New Star Books, Vancouver, BC); (with Naomi Hersom, ed.) Women and the Canadian Labour Force, conference proceedings, (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 1981); El Mundo Silenciado de las Mujeres (Santiago, Chile: CIDE, 1985); The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (University of Toronto Press, 1987); The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge (University of Toronto Press, 1990); Texts, Facts, and Femininity: Exploring the Relations of Ruling (Routledge, 1990); (with Susan Turner, ed.; intro and commentary by DES), Doing IT the Hard Way: Investigations of Gender and Technology, Sally Hacker’s Collected Papers (Harper- Collins, 1990); Eine Soziologie für Frauten (Berlin: Argument Verlag, 1998); and Writing the Social: Critique, Theory and Investigations (University of Toronto, 1999). Altamira Press will publish her forthcoming book, Sociology for People, in 2004. Address: Department of Sociology, University of Victoria, PO Box 3050, Victoria, BC, Canada V8W 395. [email:]