Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 2

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 1

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 2

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 3

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 4

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 5

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 6


The Materiality of Ideology

As a process rather than a system of ideas, ideology is given a material existence and can be studied as such. Ideology is material in that it consists of rituals, practices, and actions that constitute the process of interpellation. As such, ideology is ubiquitous. It serves to insert subjects into the practical activities of life according to the relations of the mode of production, thus reproducing those relations. According to Althusser, the state through Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses guarantee reproduction. The former function primarily by violence while the latter function primarily by ideology (1971:138). Included among the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) are the educational system, family, religion, trade unions, and communication systems. Of these, Althusser argues that education has become the most important for reproducing the relations of production and interrelating subjects.

Altogether, these ISAs are both the stake and the site of ideological class struggle (1971:140). By inference, RSAs should be the stake and site of political class struggle, though Althusser does not explicitly acknowledge this. An immediate problem with this conception is Althusser’s theory of the state. In this instance, he has essentially equated state and superstructure. We will examine the problem with this overextension of the state later (in the section on Urry).

Althusser’s theory of ideology departs substantially from previous Marxist treatments of ideology. The fact that ideology has a material existence means that it can no longer be viewed as an epiphenomenal reflection of the economic base. He also broadens the Marxist framework in such a way as to make ideology a central concept. This expansion enables him to incorporate many non-Marxist insights into the theory. In this way, he enriches the Marxist perspective while at the same time enhancing the utility of these borrowed notions. One can see Althusser’s debt to neo-Freudians, particularly Lacan, in the reconceptualization of ideology as a dynamic, ongoing process through which subjects are created. Althusser has thus laid the groundwork for the development of a Marxist concept of ideology radically different from those theories, which proceeded it. The number of prominent Marxist theorists who have elaborated on as well as criticized Althusser’s theory attests to its importance.


Poulantzas’ contribution to the theory of ideology is largely that of an elaboration, departing from Althusser much less than the other theorists we will review. Poulantzas elaborates on the function of ideology by developing the theory at the level of the social formation (1973, 1974). He is less concerned with the “micro” analysis regarding how class subjects become constituted and more concerned with specifying the relationship between class ideologies and the dominant ideology in a social formation. In doing so, he resolves the apparent contradiction between two versions of ideology found in Marxist theory: (1) that social being determines social consciousness and (2) that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Marx, 1969:47, also 25).

The first version views ideology as lived experience. The different lived relations of each class determine the way class subjects perceive and give meaning to life. The second version is based on the idea that the ruling class is able to impose its belief system on the subordinate classes thus inhibiting the development of a working class ideology. Ideology, as a vehicle of domination, distorts the real conditions of subordination and thereby conceals the real interests of the subordinate classes. In this view, ideology is defined as false-consciousness rather than consciousness. These different perspectives lead to potentially contradictory conclusions. In the first case, one would expect the classes to have very different ideologies; in the second, the ideology of the subordinate class should approximate the world-view of the dominant class (for a discussion see Abercrombie and Turner, 1978).

Poulantzas addresses precisely this problem when he states that earlier versions of ideology from Lukas on have serious ambiguities and errors that result from the conflation of several different issues (1973:197– 204). Both the above conceptualizations of ideology have been characterized by the failure to allow for the relative autonomy of the ideological instance, resulting in a tendential equating of economic position and class ideology in the first version and dominant class and dominant ideology in the second. This tendency to reduce the ideological instance to the economic instance has consequently obscured the relationship of the dominant ideology to both the dominant and subordinate classes.

Poulantzas argues that there are two levels of ideology: first, there are primary class ideologies and ideological sub-ensembles of minor classes, which encompass distinct worldviews; and secondly, apart from these class ideologies, there exists a dominant ideology, which reproduces relations in the social formation as a whole. Poulantzas argues that the dominant ideology is a product of class struggle. Therefore, many ideological elements from the subordinate classes are incorporated into the dominant ideology. Typically, though, the dominant ideology is dominated by the ideology of the dominant class since the structure of social relations is such that this class usually prevails in class struggles.

In reality, the dominant does not simply reflect the interests and conditions of the dominant class but rather the complex political relationships among the factions of the dominant class and between the dominant and subordinate classes. In this way, it serves the dual purpose of organizing the dominant class while co-opting and disorganizing the subordinate classes. This relation is encompassed in the concept hegemony whereby the dominant class manages to represent itself both as internally unified and as unifying the general interests of the people.

While the dominant ideology is usually dominated by the ideology of the dominant class, this is not a necessary relationship. It is possible for dislocations to occur due to the relative autonomy of the ideological, the political, and the economic instances. Poulantzas (1974) illustrates an historical instance of ideological dislocation in his analysis of fascism. Fascism in Germany and Italy was the product of a simultaneous political crisis (crisis of hegemony) and ideological crisis (crisis of the dominant ideology). The subordinate classes were then in a position to replace the dominant ideology with one more adapted to their interests. In the case of both Germany and Italy, the working class was also undergoing ideological crisis, resulting in the petty bourgeoisie assuming the leading role in forging a new dominant ideology.

Poulantzas’ distinction between the ideology of the dominant class and the dominant ideology resolves the confusion entailed in viewing ideology as “lived experience” as well as a mechanism, which tends to obscure the real relations of production. Class ideologies are products of the lived experiences of each class. The dominant ideology is a product of class struggle and, by virtue of its function in class societies, must conceal real contradictions. It is through concealment that the dominant ideology functions to maintain the social formation by presenting the particular lived relations of agents as a part of a relatively coherent unity — “as opposed to science, ideology has the precise function of hiding the real contradictions of reconstituting on an imaginary level a relatively coherent discourse, which serves as the horizon of agent’s experience” (1973:207).

That the limited horizon of ideology obscures recognition of contradictory class interests does not mean that all struggle is excluded. On the contrary, Poulantzas states that the dominance of this ideology is shown by the fact that the dominated classes live their conditions of political existence through the forms of dominant political discourse: often they live even their revolt against the domination of the system within the frame of reference of the dominant legitimacy (1973:223).

Poulantzas criticizes previous Marxist theorizing for generally overstating the function of ideology. What he calls the “Lukacsian problematic” represents ideology as creating the unity of a social formation rather than reflecting it (1973:197– 201). It does so by falling prey to a historicist interpretation of hegemony. According to this problematic, a “hegemonic class becomes the class-subject of history which through its world-view manages to permeate a social formation with its unity and to lead, rather than dominate, by bringing about the ‘active consent’ of the dominated classes” (1973:199). Under such a conception, the subordinate classes would have the same world-view as the dominant class. It would be this universal world-view, which determined social relations.

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