Marx Myths & Legends

Joseph McCarney

Ideology and False Consciousness

It is now generally recognised by serious scholars that Marx does not use the expression ‘false consciousness’. Nevertheless, the assumption that for him ideology is in some sense or other a ‘false consciousness’ may be said to dominate the literature. The most explicit guidance he offers on the subject points, however, in a quite different direction, towards the conclusion that for him ideology is not an epistemological category of any kind. The key passage normally cited in support of the dominant view is shown to be incapable of bearing any such interpretation. Finally, the slogan of ‘false consciousness’ itself is traced to its single textual warrant, a reference in Engels’s correspondence. The adventitious and aberrant character of this reference makes it quite incapable of sustaining the myth that was later to grow up around it.

Source: “Ideology and False Consciousness” was written for “Marx Myths and Legends” by Joseph McCarney in April 2005, and rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

Biographical information

Joseph McCarney was a retired teacher of philosophy and a founder member of the Marx and Philosophy Society. His writings on Marx and Marxism include The real world of ideology, Harvester Press, 1980 and Social theory and the crisis of Marxism, Verso, 1990. His most recent book is Hegel on History, Routledge, 2000. He was a contributor to Radical Philosophy and a member of the editorial advisory board for Historical Materialism. His main area of interest was the Hegel-Marx relationship.

Sadly, Joe died on Wed 1st August 2007 in a car accident near his home in Lewes, Sussex. UK. An obituary for Joe by Andrew Chitty is published in the Guardian, Thursday September 6, 2007.

Joe had recently set up a site for his work which is available at