Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 1

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


Discussion of Althusser’s essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1971) has filled the introductory sections of recent Marxist works on ideology. Despite its provisional and underdeveloped character, this essay has served as both a starting place from which to expand and as the position necessary to criticize in order to break new theoretical ground. Aronowitz recently claimed that Althusser’s theory of ideology “is the most advanced point historical materialism has been able to arrive at in the search for a theory adequate to its object: late capitalist society” (1982:120). It has the potential for overcoming the central inadequacies of Marxist theory concerning issues of working class complacency; the failures of existing socialism; the rise of nationalist and religious movements; and the continuing problems of race, sex, and ecology (Aronowitz, 1982:9–12, 68–69, 120–121).

As a primary point of theoretical departure, Althusser’s theory has received increasing amounts of criticism (which we will elaborate in the following sections). In general, the theory is marred by a stagnant functionalism, which overstates the unity of ideology and conceptually displaces subjection to counter-hegemonic ideologies and resulting ideological struggles. It tends to reduce ideologies of race, sex, and nation to class ideologies and does not come to grips with social relations outside of production or the state. The question remains whether the theory’s potential can be reached by expanding it to incorporate new concepts which overcome its limitations or whether the basic conceptual framework should be gutted, saving only those specific concepts which have proven useful.



The key question, which introduces Althusser’s discussion of ideology, is “how is the reproduction of the relations of production secured?”

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Critical Sociology

(1971:128). He notes that for this to occur two separate conditions must be met: (1) skills and knowledge required for specific positions in the technical division of labor must be reproduced and (2) the submission of laborers to the “rules of the established order” (1971:127) must also be reproduced.

The answer Althusser provides to this question is that “the legal-political and ideological superstructure” reproduces the relations of production (1971:141). He retains the base/superstructure analogy since it allows him to represent the relative autonomy and reciprocal effectivity of the three different levels or instances in a social formation (economic, political, ideological), while maintaining the determination in the last instance of the economic base. Two components of Althusser’s essay have influenced all subsequent Marxist discussion about ideology: 1) his theory of the microstructure of ideology based on the “creation of subjects” and 2) his analysis of the “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). Our emphasis is on the former though we will touch upon ISAs. A full investigation of ISAs would require elaboration of Althusser’s theory of the state which is not our subject (and which we find to be a problematic concept).

Althusser begins his discussion of ideology by making a distinction between “ideology in general” and “particular ideologies” (1971:150). The study of particular ideologies is necessarily historical and thus cannot take place outside the context of concrete social formations. Populist ideologies, for example, have in different times and places been associated with fascism, socialism, and competitive capitalism. According to Althusser these particular ideologies always express class position, regardless of their form (1971:150). Althusser’s project is to develop a theory of ideology in general, which he argues “has no history” (1971:151). Ideology in general is an omnihistorical reality defined by its structure and function in the same manner as is Freud’s concept of the unconscious. Ideology in general functions to reproduce the conditions of production. This is done through interrelating subjects such that they come to represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form. This form allows subjects to make sense of their particular lived experiences by making existing social relations seem universal, timeless, and natural (taken-for-granted). The object of ideology is lived experience. Althusser contrasts ideology with science whose object is the structures and patterns of experiences. Scientific practice produces theoretical knowledge while ideological practice only provides “know-how,” that is, practical knowledge and common sense.

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Constituting Subjects

The constitution of subjects occurs through interpellation. Interpellation is a process of “hailing” that precedes the birth of the individual (one is born with a name, sex, family, and so on) and continues throughout one’s lifetime (1971:165). Each individual is “always already” a subject who comes to recognize oneself through various ritual practices (such as naming, greeting, praying, voting, etc.) as concrete, distinguishable, and irreplaceable. This recognition, which transforms all individuals into subjects, is the concrete condition for the individuals’ misrecognition of one’s real conditions of existence (or, which is the same thing, the recognition of an imaginary relation to those real relations). Thus, the process of interpellation is a dual process of recognition-misrecognition constitutive of individuals as subjects. The recognition by the individual subject of imaginary relations of harmony, freedom, and individual efficacy entails the simultaneous misrecognition of relations of conflict and exploitation, which characterizes all class societies.

The term subject, in ordinary usage, has a dual meaning. It means 1) a free subjectivity, an independent center of initiatives, author of and responsible for one’s actions and 2) a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority and is therefore stripped of all freedom. The constitution of subjects is always and necessarily relational since it presupposes the existence of a unique “Other Subject” in relation to whom subjects are defined. We are following Althusser in using Subject with a capital “S” to refer to the defining subject and subject with a small “s” to refer to ordinary, constituted subjects.

The “Subject-subject” relation is both symbiotic and asymmetrical. The existence of the Subject is predicated on the constitution of subjects just as the existence of subjects depends on their relation to the Subject. But the relation is asymmetrical in that being a subject through the Subject entails a relation of dominance-subjection in that a subject can only become such by being subjected to the Subject (1971:167). Althusser takes religious ideology as an example, in which “God” is the Subject through which religious subjects are constituted. The relation “Subject-subject” exists within each ideological region (juridical-political, familial, educational, religious, etc.).

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Ideology constitutes individuals who will more or less submit to the existing order. The manner in which this subjection is accomplished varies in different types of social formations. In some social formations, individuals may be aware of their subjection but accept it as legitimate or at least inescapable. In capitalist social formations, the emphasis given to the individual as subject in the first sense obscures subjection as subject in the second sense; the individual perceives submission as freely chosen. Hence lies the power of ideology in capitalist social formations: the production of subjects whose imaginary relation to real relations is that of initiators of action. The consequence of subjection is thus the “free” choice of continued subjection. This is the material precondition of the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. We find the most obvious example of this ideology in the fundamental assumption of individual choice in neoclassical economics, where, for instance, the unemployed are seen as choosing leisure over wages.

The consequence of subjection for individual subjects is the guarantee that everything is as it seems to be. Thus, the constitution of individuals as subjects results in the outcome of “subjection-guarantee.” The outcome of this process is that the individual’s imaginary relation to real relations will be materially reproduced.