Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 6

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


Misrecognition and Concealment in Ideology

While the above discussions indicate a progressive abandonment of functionalist tendencies and class reductionism, the discussion of misrecognition and concealment defines ideology in ways that bring it closer to pre-Althusserian positions.

The importance of concealment in ideology becomes increasingly salient once reproduction is no longer considered to function automatically.

According to Althusser, misrecognition of real relations is guaranteed not because the dominant class conceals them but because real relations cannot be recognized within ideology. Ideology adequately represents lived experience and adequately inserts subjects into their practical activities. It is false not in its portrayal of surface appearances but in that it only portrays surface appearances and not the underlying structural relations which inform them. In other words, ideology is false in that it is not science. This is Althusser’s theoretical development of Lenin’s famous diction “that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness;” socialist consciousness “would have to be brought to them from without” (Lenin, 1970:143).

If one allows that ideological subjection qualifies a subject to creatively act and produce counter-hegemonic ideologies, then not all ideological subjection “conceals” in the sense of causing misrecognition of relations of domination/subjugation. The question becomes whether ideological subjection-qualification, which does not reproduce the existing relations of domination (or is simply irrelevant to it) should be considered ideology at all. Urry (1982) defines ideology by its effects of concealment and labels other signifying practices that do not have these effects as merely practices in civil society. Laclau (1982:98) refers to practices that do not entail misrecognition as discursive practices. It is not clear what meaning he gives to misrecognition, but it appears to imply a more restricted definition of ideology.

Poulantzas’ (1973) distinction between ideology in general and specific class ideologies may help disentangle the notions of concealment and misrecognition. He considers ideology in general to be equivalent to culture (minus the term’s humanistic or functionalist connotations). Ideology as a general concept necessarily contains both real and false-known edge as a consequence of its limited horizon. In accord with Althusser, this limitation necessarily involves simultaneous recognition/misrecognition, and, thus, ideology is inherently “false” in contrast to science. Concealment in the traditional sense of obscuring relations of domination/subjugation (as emphasized by Urry, 1982) consists of the exorbitant effects of bourgeois ideology on the dominant ideology. As a result, subordinate class members are unable to clearly perceive their situation from their own vantage point and, thus, are unable to formulate their own class-specific ideology. Therborn also points out that the dominant class has a greater ability to organize experience and to structure the material matrix of affirmations and sanctions, which help maintain biases within the dominant ideology. An adequate conceptualization of ideology must allow the possibility of counter-hegemonic ideologies, which perform the function of unmasking relations of domination/subjugation. This is not to claim that counter-hegemonic ideologies necessarily provide scientific knowledge of the underlying structures that support these relations. However, counter-hegemonic ideologies, which are informed by scientific knowledge, should achieve a greater long-term measure of success.

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The debate regarding misrecognition and concealment has important implications for the definition of ideology. Althusser and Poulantzas define ideology as (1) lived experience and (2) necessarily involving misrecognition. Their definition avoids the usage of ideology as only relatively coherent systems of meaning and, instead, includes all social practices and beliefs as ideological elements. It includes both the practices referred to by Laclau as “discursive,” as well as the practices Urry claims belong in civil society.

Ideology is too broadly defined by Althusser and Poulantzas and too narrowly defined by Urry. The former theorists see ideology as ubiquitous reproduction practices, which do not necessarily involve concealment, while the latter restricts ideology to practices which conceal the interests of particular social groups. The extent to which ideology conceals or reveals underlying relations of domination-subordination is a question for historical investigation and not part of the definition of ideology. We accept Laclau’s concept of the nonrandom articulation of beliefs and practices as the proper domain of ideology. This view leaves open the extent to which various ideologies actually conceal real social relations and also allows for the incorporation of Therborn’s concept of the material matrix of affirmations and sanctions that shapes (and is shaped by) ideological conflict in civil society.


In conclusion, our discussion of the new direction in Marxist theories of ideology suggests several amendments to the elaborated Althusserian theory we outlined earlier. We find that analysis of ideology would benefit from incorporation of at least six key concepts. We will briefly define each of these and provide an example of what issues we feel they illustrate. The concepts are:

  1. The Subjection-Qualification Dialectic ( Therborn, 1980). Ideology subjects agents to the relations of exploitation, but in the process it qualifies people for creative action within their positions in society (including agents of social change and revolution). For example, while trade unions subject workers to the limits of an economistic perspective, in the process unions also qualify workers to act as a class.
  2. Organic and Traditional Subjection-Qualification of Intellectuals (Gramsci, 1971). The role of intellectuals in struggles over hegemony is to elaborate on the horizon of knowledge and organize the corresponding affirmations and sanctions. There are two distinguishable types of intellectuals, organic and traditional; however, this distinction does not necessarily correspond to their position in ideological struggle. A current example of both organic and traditional intellectuals attempting to sustain a counter-hegemonic ideology is Lech Walensa and the KOR group in Poland. Many issues need to be addressed, e.g., what qualitative factors differentiate the constitution of organic and traditional intellectuals, and what distinguishes their relation to ideological struggle?
  3. The Modes of Ideological Interpellation (Therborn, 1980). Ideologies have successive levels of interpellation which conform to the three views of what exists, what is good, and what is possible (and their negation — what does not exist, what is evil, what is impossible). For example, bourgeois concepts of human nature posit that only selfish people exist, that the pursuit of self-interest is good, and that a communal system is not possible.
  4. The Dual Character of Ideology (Therborn, 1980). Each ideological expression has its supporting inverse. Thus, an ideology contains simultaneously ego and alter representations. Racism for example contains both an ego ideology of “white supremacy” and an alter ideology of black inferiority.
  5. The People and Popular-Democratic Struggles (Laclau, 1977a). The expression of the interests of the power-bloc in the state organizes the interests of those outside the power-bloc into a non-class configuration of “the people.” “The people” struggle against the power-bloc for representation of their interests in the state. Therefore, these struggles are “popular” (of the people) and “democratic” (extend representation to the masses). Since “the people” includes all groups outside the power bloc, “popular-democratic” struggles may include ideological expressions that are anti-working class. For example, fascism can be a “popular-democratic” ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie outside of an alliance with the power-bloc.
  6. Civil Society (Urry, 1982). Civil society is the space in which agents are constituted as subjects and subjects function to reproduce the material conditions of their lives. Capitalist production specifies that surplus value is realized and labor-power is reproduced in spheres outside of production. This does not function automatically; surplus value distribution and the reproduction of labor-power are issues of struggle. For example, the primary unit of reproduction is the family whose structure is neither a function of capitalist production nor the state. A central conflict within the family is over the distribution of labor in production of the use-values necessary for reproduction.
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The foregoing list of useful concepts represents the beginning of the development of Marxist theories of ideology. Although a great deal of progress has been made since the orthodox relegation of ideology to the epiphenomenal superstructure and Althusser’s early functionalism, there are still many important issues unresolved and many important questions yet to be addressed. We hope that in summarizing and constructively criticizing recent Marxist theoretical work on ideology, we have helped to lay the foundation for the future theoretical elaboration and historical application of these important concepts.


The original version of this article appeared in The Insurgent Sociologist 13:4 (Summer, 1986), pp. 5–22.

  1. Althusser’s reference to the ideological, economic, and political instances in his method for recognizing Marxism as a unique synthesis of German philosophy, English economics, and French politics. Marx constructed this synthesis as the continuation and simultaneous surpassing of the previous worldviews. It is a unique synthesis such that regardless of which instance one is examining at the time, all three are present in a formative or preparatory sense (see Gramsci, 1971:399– 401; Lenin, 1943:3– 9).
  2. A full consideration of the issues raised by Althusser’s notion of Ideological State Apparatuses would involve an examination of the interface between the ideological instance and the state, which is beyond the scope of thin paper. Furthermore, Therborn (1980), Urry (1982), and even Althusser himself (1976) have pointed to the limitations and distortions in this concept. For these reasons, we will not provide any extensive discussion of Ideological State Apparatuses in this essay.
  3. The reference to the unconscious is more than just an analogy. As Althusser points out (1969) “ideology has very little to do with ‘consciousness’. It is profoundly unconscious.” One of Althusser’s important contributions has been to integrate psychoanalysis into a Marxist problematic. It is important to realize that for Althusser a complete Marxist theory of ideology requires this structuralism social psychology.
  4. As Burawoy (1979) has shown, the function of reproduction also takes place within the economic base, but this is not Althusser’s concern.
  5. Althusser does not provide examples of the Subject-subject relation in these other regions even though he argues that the education-family couplet has replaced the religion-family couplet as the dominant ISAs in capitalist societies. It is unclear to us exactly how subjection operates in these regions, as there are two possible interpretations. For example, in the region of education the student exists in a relation of dominance-subjection with the teacher, Teacher-student, but also each student in subjected to the concept of student, Student-student.
  6. See also Anderson’s (1977) discussion of the influence of one of Gramsci’s conceptions of the exercise of hegemony by the state apparatus on Althusser’s concept of Ideological State Apparatuses.
  7. Poulantzas states that only the two major classes of a given social formation have relatively coherent ideologies. Secondary classes are characterized by ideological subensembles which eclectically spin together ideological elements from the major class ideologies.
  8. Scientific discourse does allow for contradictions, which exist in social relations. It is in this sense that ideology in false, not in the sense of false consciousness.
  9. Poulantzas (1973:211) claims that “technocratism” has become the articulating region under monopoly capitalism. However, he does not develop this point. It is interesting to note that Bahro (1978) claims that in “actually existing socialist countries” the political bureaucracy is the dominant instance of the mode of production and technocracy is the articulating region of the dominant ideology. Technocracy in so employed as to justify and legitimate the bureaucratic hierarchy.
  10. This calls into question the notion that the working class must be the “vanguard” in any transition to socialism.
  11. See Poulantzas (1973) on the concept of the “power bloc.”
  12. Basically, a reductionist theory does not allow for the relative autonomy of the political and the ideological from the economic level. Each political or ideological practice of significance is conceived of as having a direct economic cause or reflecting the economic interests of a class. Instrumentalism in political theory and economics in general tend to be reductionist theories (see Gramsci, 1971:158– 168 for a discussion of economics). An autonomous theory in conceptually the opposite of a reductionist theory. Politics and ideologies are affected by the economy (and vice versa), but there is no determination in the last instance of the economic. Autonomous theories generally stem from Weberian influences. Since civil society is tied to the advent of capitalism, it is a historically specific concept. Althusser’s theory of mode of production having three instances is an abstract conception without a “history.”
  13. According to Therborn (1980:85, 133, note 36) in a personal communication, Althusser stated he is no longer defending ISAs as such, only the intrinsic link between ideological apparatuses and the state. This latter conception seems consistent with Urry’s theory of the role of the law, although he rejects the centrality Althusser (1971) and Poulantzas (1973) give to the juridical-political ideology.
  14. The absence of an analysis of how class struggle affects the ideological constitution of subjects and thus the reproduction of society is a striking deficiency in Althusser’s work noted by Hirst (1976) and even Althusser himself (1976).
  15. We should note that Poulantzas’ (1973. 210–216) discussion of the various regions within the ideological instance is not class reductionist. He argues that the various regions are structured by class domination but cannot be reduced to class interests. However, this one example does not refute the argument that many components of his theory suffer from class reductionism.