DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2019, from

1. Marxist approaches

The study of ideologies initially arose from the attempt of the French writer Antoine Destutt de Tracy to create a systematic science of ideas, distinct from prejudices. That meaning of ‘ideology’ is no longer of importance in contemporary debate. Of far greater consequence was the Marxist conception of ideology, which has had a significant impact on the inquiry into, and understanding of, ideology, as well as directing its analysis into an intellectual cul-de-sac. In the nineteenth century Karl Marx (§§6, 7), assisted by Friedrich Engels, converted ‘ideology’ into a critical concept (Marx and Engels 1846). The great value of Marx’s contribution lay in relating ideology decisively to the socio-economic practices from which it sprang - specifically to capitalist production - and in pointing out how effective its thought edifices could be in (mis)directing human energies and shaping human institutions. Ontologically, ideology could be contained in Marx’s foundational materialist axiom that being conditions consciousness. Epistemologically, it emerged as a special case when human consciousness reflected the alienated, dehumanized and partial existence of human beings, through a distorted representation of that existence (see Alienation §§3, 5). Hence not all thought was ideological. Ideology arose historically as an inverted reflection of the material contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and denoted only one type of socially produced thought, albeit a very pervasive one. The misrepresentation of the real character of social relations, ‘the distorted language of the actual world’, was thus both a historical necessity - because of the conditioned nature of human thought - and a function of ideology (now interpreted as concealment). In identifying this latter aspect, Marx emphasized ideology as a reflection, and in itself a form, of the power and exploitation embedded in the social contradictions to which material conditions give rise. The dominant class - the bourgeoisie - was the beneficiary of ideology, precisely because ideology served its interest - namely, the maintenance of its domination - through inverting the real facts about capitalism. Originally Marx employed the analogy of the mirror image of the camera obscura to illustrate that distortion and to distinguish ideology from error or illusion. However, his analysis was more sophisticated in that he did not see ideology as a direct reflection of a distorted reality but as an inversion of that distortion, so that the repressive elements of capitalism, such as entrapping people in commodity exchange relationships, could be presented as free trade.

One consequence of Marx’s analysis of ideology lies in its opposition to true consciousness. The function of ideology is concealment, but its critical identification as such is a crucial step towards its overcoming. Ideology is hence an ephemeral phenomenon, and once the practices which give rise to it are negated, it too will disappear. A second consequence is its association with power and domination; indeed, for many analysts the ‘dominant ideology’ thesis locates its central feature in the superimposition of a class or particular world view on a society. Thus for the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (§3), ideologies were superstructures, consolidated by intellectuals (Gramsci 1971). This replaced the need for a forced class rule through providing an integrating culture in the broadest sense. Such ideologies included art, religion, literature and law, avoiding reduction to economic analysis. They ensured the hegemony of a dominant class over the masses by means of a consensual historical bloc. The important notions of practice and action - the organizational attributes of ideology - are incorporated in this view which, at the same time, loses its ephemeral link to specific historical circumstances.

Louis Althusser further encouraged Marxists to analyse ideology on its own merits (Althusser 1984). He retained its dissimulative function but emphasized its integrative one, ‘interpellating’ individuals and bestowing on them a subjective (ostensibly free), as well as subjected, identity within their society. Thus recognition and misrecognition operate side by side to sustain a given society. All classes produce ideology, which is now seen as a permanent material phenomenon in societies, existing objectively in the form and substance of social practices and their rituals. In that sense, ideology is neither a distortion nor an illusion. It is an ‘imaginary’ representation of the real, yet also a ‘lived’ relation between individuals and their conditions of existence, a ‘new reality’. Elaborating on earlier Marxist analyses, the state in particular was seen to employ ‘ideological state apparatuses’ in order to ensure the dominance of the established order and its relations of production.

Citing this article:
Freeden, Michael. Marxist approaches. Ideology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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