A Reading Guide -- Althusser on Ideology

L. ALTHUSSER "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)" in Althusser L (1977) 'Lenin and Philosophy' and Other Essays, London, New Left Books 


This is an influential, but seldom carefully read piece, quoted all over the place in Sociology of Education and Media/ Popular Culture or Politics texts. For many commentators, it summarises Althusser's main views on ideology, reproduction ,and the role of the individual, especially via the discussion of hailing. However, there are several other pieces in Althusser's overall work which offer different views, and getting the overall picture of Althusser's attempt to revive marxism is helpful in locating this piece). In this collection of his work (Lenin and Philosophy…), try also the article "Freud and Lacan" on the individual. 

The main arguments 

1. Social reproduction can be simple or extended. It goes on in the whole social system outside production, hidden to the usual view. The productive forces must themselves be reproduced - labour power must be competent, provided with know-how and with rules, subjected to ruling ideology to employ knowledge conscientiously. This occurs outside production itself. Know-how must take place in forms of ideological subjection. 

2. Marx's base-superstructure metaphor should be read as referring to foundations, e.g. of a house, rather than to strict determination by the economy. "Upper levels" [later to be specified as 'political' and 'cultural/ideological' levels, as well as the 'economic' -- the EPI/C model]  have only a derivatory effect, but can act reciprocally back on the base - as reproduction of the base. 

3. The State is not just a collection of repressive state apparatuses (R.S.A.s). Early Marx himself suggests this, but we should see this too as only a descriptive beginning. The issue today is State power as the centre of political class struggle. The modern State is a plurality of apparatuses, including ideological state apparatuses (I. S. A. s). These are still State apparatuses because their very "private" nature is itself decided by the State [so earlier formulations, including Gramsci's are suspect]. They function as State apparatuses. , by ideology not by repression, primarily, although they are interwoven with R. S. A. s. They are unified by the ruling ideology which is revealed in I. S. A. s "precisely in contradictions". The ruling class must dominate I. S. A. s, [although it must not look like it] providing a possible site of class struggle, and there are contradictions in ruling class ideology, leaving room for the exploited to gain power. But even so, any struggle would still only be in an ideological form, and would be rooted elsewhere [a point overlooked by advocates of activist struggle in the media, in education etc. ?]. 

4. Reproduction occurs through these I. S. A. s. Any force needed is already under the control of the ruling class (r.c.) (including administrators.). The political conditions needed are secured via the I. S. A. s, via the ruling ideology. As above, this is inevitably contradictory, having to balance r.c. interests against broader interests both national and particular, and having to reconcile r.c. interests with possibly conflicting issues like nationalism, moralism and "economism". 


5. In modern capitalism, education is the main I. S. A. It fits people to the labour market and gives them an appropriate ideology. It appears neutral - knowledge can even seem liberating [a dig at some old lefties here]. Internal struggles - progressive challenges etc. - only make it look more neutral or "natural": the real challenge comes from "the educational crisis", the world class struggle. 


6. Ideology "in general" "has no history" [i.e. no actual content, no concrete origin in wrong perceptions etc.], although specific ideologies do. Ideology in general is always "imaginary", representing a non-historical "reality". Imagination is "eternal" [i.e. makes the same continuing, permanent, and wrong relations between people and social reality, the famous "imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence".] Ideology is a representation of this imaginary relationship. It is not just an illusion which can be easily dispelled by a correct interpretation, not just a lie to fool subordinate classes, not just the result of a necessary alienation - ideology is needed in social life. Ideology does not just misrepresent the real nature of capitalist society - the relation of individuals to the realities is necessarily "imaginary distortion". 


7. Ideology has a material existence in apparatuses, in practices which are represented. The imaginary relation at the heart of ideology in general is grounded in important practices which constitute individuals as "subjects" [i.e. acting individuals, with ideas of their own]. This subjectivity must be confirmed by practice, or else individuals can not be treated as such. Social rituals [note the similarities with Durkheim - or Goffman!] in ideological apparatuses confirm this view that we are subjects with consciousness "of our own". This is done so well that subjects seem obvious and natural. Ideologies thus affect all practices and all notions of the subject, individuality, consciousness etc. 


8. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects -i. e. the very category of the subject is ideological, and "all ideology has the function [n.b.] of 'constituting' individuals as subjects". The very obviousness and naturalness of the experience of ourselves as subjects is an "ideological effect". We recognise ourselves as subjects - ideology has a recognition function as well as a misrecognition one [witty, no?]. 


9. Recognition arises in rituals such as "hailing" - calling someone's name : ideology does this too, it "hails" us (interpellation), although we are usually unaware of this. It has done this "eternally" - an abstract category of "subject" lies waiting for us long before we actually fill out that category with detailed, concrete "individual" performances. [ There are clear links with "positioning theory" in Film Studies which argues that films "hail" audiences precisely in this way - see the file  on realism . 

An example in Althusser 

10. The Christian ideology says that God addresses individuals (hails them) in order to make each of us a subject, free to obey or disobey etc. But Christianity also expects recognition of God's constituting role back from the individuals concerned. To be a subject in Christianity, you have to subject yourself to God - the human subject merely reflects the Subjectivity of God. 

11. This "mirror structure", where a centred Subject is surrounded by nothing but pale reflections of Himself is typical of all ideology - a system of mutual reflection of images guarantees the credibility of the whole system [this helps us distinguish ideology from marxist science, which actually produces new knowledge from productive work on ideologies -- as in the "generalities" model, and note the link with the "mirror relation" borrowed from Lacan on Freud]. Rituals make all this work apparently quite naturally - Christians soon learn the difficult idea that to be a subject you must subject yourself willingly. The reality that is not obvious or easily grasped is that subjection of subjects serves the reproductive function of the social formation. 

An example not in Althusser 

12. The ideology of assessment in educational systems says that individuals freely, and as an expression of their subjective "knowledge", "intelligence" or "quality" subject themselves ("submit" pieces of work) to the processes of grading. If individuals gain good grades they are entitled to award themselves self-defining labels such as "bright", "academic", "clever", "suited for a higher degree", and so on. Subjective prowess and personal status implies subjection to an impersonal and crudely operationalised grading system. Individual students are thus interpellated. They are allowed to make concrete the abstract categories (grades) which await them. The whole system is self-sustaining - the more good grades you want, the more you have to submit work, the more work that is willingly submitted, the more rational, helpful and natural the assessment system becomes. The whole process is centred on a myth. The reality that is not so easy to grasp is that the assessment system serves to reproduce the technical division of the labour force, and its docility, required by capitalism  see also Bowles and Gintis . 

This is not a conspiracy, not another example of "alienation", not the result of open control by a rapacious ruling class or academic elite - it is necessary, one of the "eternal" practices by which individuals recognise themselves. No-one controls it . Some mugs think they do when they "play the game" in assessment - but, in the end, just as with Willis's lads (see P. Willis's book Learning to Labour or reading guide), the system reproduces its own requirements. 


13. In the last appended section, Althusser admits that his analysis is too "abstract", that the function of completing reproduction depends on a successful class struggle by the r.c. At most, I. S. A.s represent only the necessary forms of class struggle developed elsewhere [This restoration of class struggle might save Althuser from some of his critics who have accused him of "functionalism" etc -but he then leaves himself open to the charge of Hirst et al. (eg in Hirst, P On Law and Ideology ) that this is "class reductionism" of the old kind after all!]. 


The usual reaction to all this in British marxist circles is to condemn it all as hopelessly "functionalist", deterministic, leaving no hope for activist teachers who "resist"  or activist film audiences, underestimating resistance etc. Gramsci is usually preferred for a whole range of reasons. So, just to end on a pro-Althusserian note, for a change, try thinking about the following: 

1. Gramsci locates one of the bases for activist resistance in areas outside of the State ( "civil society"). Althusser doesn't think much of this concept, and there is a hint of his criticism in the ISAs essay - dig it out from Section 3 and think about it. 

2. "Activism" is often seen as a good thing in its own right (and it was very fashionable once among academics). Has Althusser simply forgotten about it in this essay, or has he offered any reasons for thinking activism is likely to be limited as a political strategy? 

3.Is Althusser offering us no hope of radical change at all in this essay? Is this a conservative analysis? Is it a functionalist one ( like, say, Davis and Moore or Parsons)? What marxist politics might (did!) follow from this essay? 


While you're here, let me also offer some notes on another famous piece by Althusser on ideology. This one is much less well known, probably, and it concerns  what looks like a different definition of ideology. Here, Althusser is attempting to clarify the distinction between ideology and science, part of a major effort which led him into famous pieces like the one on 'the Generalities'. Of course, ultimately, the project was to defend marxism as a science. Meanwhile, the piece offers a nice example of good skilled  marxist 'ideology critique' --although you might need to know a bit about Rousseau's Social Contract to really appreciate it 

READING GUIDE TO: the chapter on Rousseau, Althusser L (1972) Politics and History, Part 2, New Left Books: London. 

Here, Althusser argues that ideology is a theoretical practice, which is locked in a problematic which defines both problems and solutions. It has a reflective, mirror structure. It cannot produce real, concrete knowledge. Althusser goes on to apply this to Rousseau's notion of the social formation. This is a specifically theoretical object, produced from mere philosophical reflection, and producing definite theoretical effects of its own. Specifically, Rousseau's  thought contains discrepancies -- ambiguities or contradictions. These can be  'solved' only by the introduction of further discrepancies. Ultimately, all these specific discrepancies are traceable to a fundamental one -- between the  'concept in theory' and the 'real concept'. 

The first discrepancy. The relation between individuals and the community is conceived as a Social Contract, in Rousseau. This is odd though, because the two  'contractors' are the same thing, according to Rousseau. The community and the General Will emerge only after individuals have constructed it together. At the same time, individuals can only really be free and fully social after the General Will rules. This is surely ambiguous. Althusser goes on to suggest that Rousseau owes a debt to Hobbes in all this, although this is not immediately obvious. Rousseau can only get out of this discrepancy by saying how the Social Contract actually emerges. However, when he tries this he only runs into... 

The second discrepancy. The Social Contract is established as a result of the pursuit of the personal interests of individuals, and Althusser says that Rousseau was at pains to stress the personal benefits of it all for individuals, as all liberals must. Rousseau's emphasis is on  'moral benefits' , but as he acknowledges, there will be slightly more material benefits too, such as the right to own private property and to pursue material economic interests. We all know that that will lead to massive social inequality, and for marxists, of course, that does not benefit many individuals at all. The real advantage to be gained in moral communities, suggests Althusser, is that they regulate capitalism rather better than  'Nature' does --  'Nature' was Rousseau's earlier utopia.  Rousseau recognises this, but hopes that some elusive moral freedom will emerge once the General Will is released. However, moral freedom and economic freedom fit together rather uneasily. 

The third discrepancy. Apart from all the usual problems and ambiguities about how the General Will preserves and reconciles individual wills, Rousseau is very confused about the dangers presented by sundry sections or factions who might pervert the General Will.  Althusser says Rousseau knows very well that these are the really important social groups, and that they will, and do, dominate real social conditions.  However, all he can do is simply hope that they won't interfere. Other practical problems -- such as the mechanics of political constitutions and so on -- are well discussed in Rousseau, but this issue of factions is simply denied. For Althusser, of course, these factions are social classes, and they determine or constitute both of the mythical polls -- the General Will and the individual will. Anyway, at the first really crucial confrontation between the theoretical model and real social conditions, Rousseau's whole argument fails to comprehend or to give a plausible account. 

The fourth discrepancy. Rousseau does offer major reforms to attempt to suppress the role of factions: 

  1. First by educational reform and general Enlightenment in mass education -- found in just about all the liberals. The problem remains that Rousseau offers no good reason  (one based on actual interests, like the whole thing is, allegedly)  for such a programme. It is only worthwhile if you take Rousseau's vision of society as a matter of faith, as a  'civil religion'. Rousseau offers no conceivable rational social base for such programme, in other words. 
  2. Secondly by economic reform by the State, involving mildly socialist programmes of redistribution, flavoured with a bit of nostalgia for pre-industrial forms.  However, though, Rousseau offers no real economic or social bases for these programmes either -- all he is left with is mere  'moral preaching'. In both cases, Rousseau is trapped by a reality he cannot analyse. He can only appeal to old bits of ideology which already exist, such as a kind of secular Christianity at times. He does offer us one other way out, though -- fictional utopias like the one described in Emile! 



Reading all this again in the late 1990s is really rather interesting. This is Althusser at the height of his powers, really, confidently asserting marxist science against the forces that were already at work in France which threatened to end its monopoly for ever. Benton (1984) offers a clear account of the development of Althusserian marxism.  It is a long and interesting story, but we can summarise the main developments in terms of problems with the interpellation model: 

1. The ideological messages offered to the helpless subject in ISAs  turned out to be far from clear and far from simple. At its most abstract, this emerged with further work on language and how it worked. All language was contaminated with ambiguity, it was argued. In marxist terms, this ambiguity could be explained as the residue of past class struggles -- hints of the old suppressed meanings of terms like 'freedom' remained despite concerted attempts to make them fit only capitalist freedom. This insight is usually associated with 'formalist marxists' like Volosinov, and gave rise to one interesting experiment to try to detect such oppositional residues in the language of Glasgow workmen (Woolfson 1976). Pecheux traced similarly oppositional readings of different kinds in his own work (Pecheux 1982). There is an excellent online essay on Pecheux, with considerable relevance to contemporary cultural studies by Montogomery and Allen in the splendid Canadian Journal of Communication. You can access it on the S Zupko site ( see external links
In Britain, we might be more familiar with Hall's (1980) work on alternative possible 'decodings', classically of the messages in the mass media ( see file) . This might still require only an amendment to Althusser, but the real problems arose with 'post-structuralist' analyses of language, which put a considerable amount of uncontrollable ambiguity at the very heart of  language systems (to put it simply). Authors could still attempt to fix meanings as tightly as possible, but the most determined efforts were doomed to rely on little tricks and glosses to cover up ambiguity, which were inherently unstable: for every clear statement or image in an ideological discourse, there were alternatives, 'ghosts', lying dormant and waiting to be activated. The problem gets worse when one considers the huge amount of alternative texts floating around which  suggest such alternatives to the most innocent reader. Worse still, marxist analyses themselves were, it had to be admitted, just another kind of attempt to fix or center meanings, using the same tricks and glosses. 

2. The apparatuses themselves needed to be investigated. They might have the formal function of interpellation, but that did not entitle us to assume that this is what they actually did, or that they did this without contradiction. Apparatuses in liberal democracies especially had a number of functions to discharge, including maintaining some sort of critical distance from dominant ideology. It is all very well for Althusser to assume that these apparent alternatives only helped strengthen the authority of ISA -- but that needed to be shown. There are several attempts to show how these institutions work -- later Gintis and Bowles (see file)  analyse the school system as a site of such contradictions and struggles between the liberating and ideological phases. Thompson's celebrated (1978) critique of Althusser pleads for an analysis of how  ideologies actually get produced, with all their struggle, hesitation and ambiguity, before becoming safely installed in ISAs. Hall et al (1978) try to show that the mass media are genuinely independent and critical to some extent, yet those very professional values can still preserve overall ideological frameworks nonetheless ( see reading guide)(and for a more general commentary see Harris (1992)). 

3. The 'knowing subject' needed to be examined. There ensued a whole shift towards the notion of the 'active subject' after this essay was written, largely based on the notion of floods of textuality we mentioned above, rather than on the usual rather naïve view of ourselves as clever individuals. The active subject alone can fix meaning amidst the flux of intertextual references available to him or her. In their famous analysis of the Bond movie  (see file) , Bennett and Woollacott argue that there is no point even in talking of a singular (ideological) Bond film, so varied are the readings of the individual 'formations' (not individuals) likely to be -- and the ideological codes, which had been so carefully analysed in the earlier work only existed, in effect, if they were read. 
Despite these problems, 'interpellation' or 'positioning' approaches remain in much critical work in Cultural Studies, often accompanied with warnings about their assumptions. The most outstanding example is in the work on the Disney site, (see file)  in my view, which often cheerfully assumes that Disney parks do and must interpellate their visitors in a very straightforward way. Perhaps it is now a matter of faith that this must be so for the critic?


Benton T (1982) The Rise and Fall of Structuralist Marxism, London: Macmillan 
Hall S et al (1978)  Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, London: Macmillan 
Hall S et al (eds) (1980) Culture, Language and Media, London: Hutchinson 
Harris D (1992) From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure...,London and New York: Routledge 
Thompson E (1978) 'The Poverty of Theory' and Other Essays,  London: NLB 
Woolfson C (1976) 'The Semiotics of Working Class Speech' in CCCS (eds) Cultural Studies 9, Birmingham University 

  more files on various topics