Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 5

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


Ideological Struggle and the Unity of Ideology

Since civil society is separate from production, it may contain modes of subjection which do not necessarily reproduce production and may even be contrary to its reproduction, at least in the short run (1982:119– 123). Reproduction is therefore not predetermined but instead a matter of struggle. Moreover, civil society contains various institutions—family, market, church, schools, etc. Thus, struggles over reproduction cannot be reduced to class struggles.

Urry claims that Althusser’s theory of ideology suffers from an inertfunctionalism since it implies that reproduction is “automatic” and “so structured that it is the most functionally appropriate for social relations of capitalist production” (1982:52). Like Therborn and Laclau, he notes that struggles over reproduction of labor-power (class struggle) and struggle over reproduction of the power-bloc (popular-democratic struggle) is absent from Althusser’s theory. According to Urry, the notion of the ideological instance does not include a well-defined arena for struggle over reproduction. The concept of civil society provides this arena. Given ideology does not automatically reproduce capitalist relations but instead consists of disparate practices which may or may not reproduce production (or may simply be irrelevant to it), then there is also no basis for assuming a unified ideological instance. Urry contends that the material practices, which interpolate subjects, should be conceived as practices in civil society and nothing more. There is no dominant ideology since “class practices may or may not overlap with that of other classes. There may or may not be relations of domination between different class practices” (1982:47). Urry even goes on to argue that class practices (such as “interest, ritual, know-how, symbols and illusions, modes of thought, and views of life”) have no inherent unity and therefore should not be considered class ideologies at all (1982:47). As a result, he claims there is no ideological instance, only ideological effects. A social practice has an ideological effect only when there is “a concealment of causes, nature and consequences of that practice and this concealment is in the interests of one or more of the dominant social forces” (1982:45). Urry has thus restricted the concept of ideology to a distinct and more orthodox meaning.

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It is our position that his assertion that class practices “may or may not overlap” and “may or may not be relations of domination” does not invalidate the existence of a unified pattern of ideological hegemony. As Gramsci (1971:161) states, “the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised.” Therefore, we would expect the dominant ideology to include overlapping practices and relations of compromise. Urry’s conception of civil society represents an advance over Althusser’s ideological instance in that conflict and struggle are made more central, but Urry’s theory is not without difficulties. His position regarding the separation of production from struggles over reproduction in civil society is a decisive step in avoiding reductionism (see Giddens, 1982 for a different argument with similar conclusions). However, struggle in production does not have a clear conceptual location in Urry’s theory. Since class struggle in production is not examined, the determinant effects of production on circulation and reproduction are underspecified. Urry claims that ideology is everywhere (1982:31); we claim the same is true of struggle.



Recent Marxist theories of ideology have moved in three major directions since the theoretical conjuncture opened up by Althusser. These three directions are (1) a movement away from functionalist theories of reproduction and towards an analysis of qualified actors, (2) a critique of class reductionism and emphasis on non-class struggles, and (3) a reconceptualization of the meaning of misrecognition and the importance of concealment in defining ideology and a move toward a more restrictive definition of ideology.


All of the recent theories incorporate Althusser’s fundamental premise that the constitution of subjects always takes place within ideology and that there is no inherent essence to class subjects outside of, or prior to ideology. However, they all break to relative degrees within his position that ideology necessarily functions to reproduce the relations of production. The problems with this position are most evident in Althusser’s concept of “subjection-guarantee.” If ideology reproduces the relations of production through subjecting all subjects and guaranteeing to them that everything is as it seems, then there is no place for ideological struggle. To be sure, Althusser makes no such assertion, but he leaves no mechanism in his analysis for non-reproduction. Therborn’s (1980) concept of subjection qualification provides such a mechanism. It retains the premise of ideological subjection but indicates that subjection qualifies one to act and thus subjection and reproduction may not necessarily correspond.

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To a larger extent, the functionalist tendencies in Althusser are the result of the limits imposed by his object of study. By choosing “ideology in general” as his object of study, Althusser was not able to address conflicts between particular ideologies. In examining particular ideologies, each of the subsequent authors found it necessary to move in the direction of including class struggle and historical contingency in their analysis. Poulantzas (1973) argues that the dominant ideology is a result of ideological class struggle, and Laclau (1977a) emphasizes the importance of subjection to counter-hegemonic ideologies. Urry (1982) speaks to the notion of the unity of ideology. Since Althusser’s (1971) assertion of unity is based on the function of ideology as reproduction, to acknowledge that ideology contains non-reproductive practices then destroys the basis of that unity. Instead, unity must come from other sources, such as the nation-state, as Poulantzas (1973) suggests.

Each of these theorists argue that ideological subjection results from ideological struggle and does not automatically reproduce existing social relations. Ideological dominance is contingent on successful elaboration and organization of the dominant ideology as well as cooptation or containment of opposing ideologies. This makes the role of intellectuals central to understanding ideology and ideological conflict. A significant lacuna in all of the theories (with the partial exception of Poulantzas, 1973 and 1980) is an adequate analysis of the specific role of intellectuals. One can find the beginnings of a theory of intellectuals in Gramsci’s (1971:5–23) brilliant discussion of the role of traditional and organic intellectuals. He realized that intellectuals have a significant and relatively autonomous position in the social structure and that their relation to class forces is a significant determinant of the outcome of ideological conflict. The theory of ideology needs to more fully address the role of intellectuals in the production of ideology and the processes by which it becomes transformed.

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The second direction taken by recent Marxist theories is the progressive abandonment of both economic reductionism and class reductionism. Stalinist Marxism is reductionist in both senses, viewing the superstructure as a reflection of the economic base and ideologies as reflections of the economic interests of particular social classes. Althusser (1971) and Poulantzas (1973) break with economic reductionism by positing the relative autonomy of the ideological and political levels of social formations. Yet both retain class reductionist definitions of ideology. For Althusser ideology reproduces class domination while for Poulantzas all ideological elements have a specific class character (1974). Therborn (1980) and Laclau (1977a) deny that all ideologies can be reduced to class interests but argue that all ideologies are overdetermined by class ideologies. This is only a partial break with class reductionism.

Urry (1982) and Laclau, in a later discussion (1982), deny the necessary primacy of class ideologies over non-class ideologies in conflicts over hegemony. According to Urry (1982), there are many different ideological struggles within civil society, and it is a contingent question as to whether class or non-class ideological conflicts will be more important in any particular social formation. Laclau (1982:100) argues along similar lines that either class or non-class articulating principles may form the basis of hegemony.

In part, these positions are missing one another. The differences between these theorists partially reflect differences in their units of analysis. Althusser (1971) is exclusively concerned with the reproduction of the relations of production, whereas Laclau (1982) and Urry (1982) are concerned with the reproduction of the social formation. Political hegemony cannot be reduced to class hegemony. Attempts to do so obscure the specific nature of race, sex, national, religious, and other non-class struggles. This does not mean that the mode of production does not structure social relations in a social formation but only that not all social relations can be reduced to relations of production.