Critical Realism, Cultural Studies and Althusser on Ideology
(paper prepared for the IACR-conference "Debating Realism(s)", Roskilde University,
Denmark, 17-19 August 2001)
In my paper I first want to give a short outline of Althusser’s theory of ideology. I will
suggest to divide his contributions to a conception of the ideological into four parts:
theoretical ideologies as conditions of science, and science as continually
produced and continually threatened epistemological break with theoretical ideologies
ideology as lived relation of individuals and groups to their conditions of existence
relatively autonomous Ideological State Apparatuses securing the reproduction of
a social formation
ideology (in general) as constitutive mechanism for (each) subjectivity
I did not choose Althusser by chance, I chose Althusser because he was one of the most
influential authors both for Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism and for Cultural Studies
(especially in the 1970s and 80s) (cf. Bhaskar 1989; Bhaskar 1997; Grossberg 1993;
Roughly one could say that Bhaskar has supplemented Althusser’s theory of epistemology
(which he has adopted) with a new theory of ontology1 (which possibly is present implicitly
in Althusser’s texts); while Cultural Studies - though critically - adopted the conceptions of
ideology as lived relation of individuals to their conditions of existence and the conception
of ideological apparatuses; in the 1990s they increasingly included the question of the
constition of subjectivities, esp. in their research about racism, anti-racist resistance (f.e.
Phil Cohen, Paul Gilroy, Les Back) and institutionalized sexist practices and discourses
In the second part of my paper I want to discuss the way Critical Realism and Cultural
Studies have further developed certain aspects of Althusser’s "notes towards an
investigation"2 about ideology - Althusser always insisted that what he presented were
first of all philosophical reflections but not an elaborate theory of ideology.
Of course I do not intend to give a full exposition of these diverse and comprehensive
approaches / theoretical strands - which would be impossible anyway. But I will present
1 Of course, Bhaskar’s and esp. Andrew Sayer’s (Sayer 1993) work is not only an elaboration of a
critical realist ontology, but also extensive work about critieria of scientificity and methodology of
2 which is the subtitle of his essay ’Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (Althusser 1971).
these selected elements of theory which are - starting from but taking a distance from
Althusser - related to the issue of ideology.
Here I can make only rather general remarks, not an elaborate representation and critique
of all approaches concerned.
In my conclusion I would like to present some suggestions for a possible and productive
dialogue between Critical Realism, Cultural Studies and Althusser’s texts.
Althusser’s aspects of a theory of ideology
Althusser’s position as a dissident member of the French Communist Party can be
characterised as a strategy of concealed subversion of some theoretical foundations of
the politics of the PCF in the 1960s and 70s.
This strategy implied that he used in his texts all key concepts of Marxism-Leninism but
gave them a wholly different meaning. And this means that he subverted the whole
dogmatized edifice of historical and dialectical materialism.
His intentions were to construct a materialist theory which is adequate to actual society,
and, in doing so, to make use of what he saw as the most important insights of non-
Marxist theories (Bachelard’s philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics and semiotics).
One of the core concepts of Marxism which he tried to re-define is that of ideology. The
usual definitions were the following:
ideology as false consciousness (although this is an expression never used by Marx
himself; cf. Michelle Barrett 1991), as distorted knowledge;
ideology as a set of class-related ideas which reflect and legitimize the dominant position
of a certain class; ideas which serve class interests.
Their - traditional - figure of argumentation is to explain sets of ideas and forms of
consciousness as derivable from other spheres (esp. from economics - as practised by
the ’theory’ of commodity fetishism, or reflection theory, or class-reductionism, or
standpoint theory, etc.); this means to find the motive force of ideology production
exclusively in the ’base’ of the society.
Althussers argument, in contrast to this, is that we have to explain not merely the motive
force and the function, the aim of ideologies, but first of all the mechanism of ’ideology in
general’. That is to understand the ideological not merely as derived from other social
processes but as a phenomenon and a process in its own right, with its own ’logic’ and
characteristics, with its specific ’generative mechanisms’ (to borrow a Bhaskarian term).
In ’For Marx’, a collection of philosophical essays, Althusser concentrates on two aspects
of the issue of ideology: the relation between ideology and science, and the conception of
ideology as ’lived relation of men to the world’.
In order to reject all idealist theories and philosophies of knowledge, Althusser conceived
the progress of knowledge production analogous to the economic process of production.
A given raw material (i.e. representations, concepts, ’facts’, ...; called ’Generality I’ by
Althusser) is transformed into scientific knowledge (the product; Generality III) by scientific
theoretical practice (called Generality II) - the later is mostly a contradictory unified
theoretical system, including theoretical concepts, methods of inquiry and measurement,
etc. (FM 185; cf. also RC)
A central criterion of distinction between scientific and ideological knowledge is -
according to Althusser - the openness or closure of the process of knowledge production.
This especially means: sciences produce new knowledge, they really transform previous
knowledge (in Critical Realist terms: sciences emerge from ideological contexts) while
ideologies merely reproduce and elaborate premises which are already present at the
beginning of the research and knowledge process (in Generality I). An example would be
Hegel’s philosophy of history.3
A qualitative opposition, an "epistemological break", separates a new science in process
of self-constitution from the pre-scientific theoretical ideologies that occupy the ’terrain’ in
which it is establishing itself" (FM 12). Against critiques of his presumed ’rationalism’ and
’formalism’ Althusser points out that "this ’break’ leaves intact the objective social
dimension occupied by (non-theoretical) ideologies (religion, ethics, legal and political
ideologies, etc.)" (FM 13). This does not mean that sciences have no impact on non-
scientific social realities but that these impacts only occur if sciences are combined with
political forces and social movements.
Furthermore, such a transformation, such an epistemological break, is not achieved once
and for all, it is rather that theoretical ideologies constantly threaten and besiege science
Empiricism, philosophies of history (with their central features: teleology, metaphysical
guarantees of historical or even of anthropological tendencies and processes),
pragmatism, theoretical humanism are the central theoretical ideologies criticised by
((Althusser here is arguing explicitly against (bourgeois) idealist ideologies, but implicitly,
however, he thereby also attacked central philosophical premises of the French
Communist Party - and the Party understood his theoretical strategy, so Althusser had
3 Other examples would be authors who implicitly presuppose that great men - or technological
progress, or market anthropology, etc. - would be the central moving force of history, and then their
analyses, e.g. of the transformation process in the Soviet Union, result in the ’explanation’ that M.
Gorbacev (or technological backwardness, or oppression of market principles, etc.) would be the
ultimate cause of these changes.
4 Althusser applies Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical practice to social sciences, to the ’continent’
of the science of history (Althusser’s preferred term for historical materialism). Bachelard had
distinguished between philosophies that hinder the progress of sciences and other ones that
support scientific progress. Central principles of a supporting philosophy: no philosophical
(metaphysical) guarantees (be it for the process of history, be it for the problem of knowledge), no
philosophical imperialism (Kant), no intervention in analytical questions.
always been at the margins in the PCF, it even refused to publish his texts in the party
He claims that only through an absolute break with the Hegelian dialectic Marx had been
able to develop - or at least to give important hints for - a new materialist non-ideological
theory of society, of history, of ideology and of science.
For example the rejection of a Hegelian conception of a relation between an essence and
its phenomena, sublimated in the concept of the ’truth of ...’, enabled him to think "the
relative autonomy of the superstructure and their effectivity" (FM 111); a theory of this
"largely remains to be elaborated", he says.
The next step in Althusser’s conception of a new theory of ideology was the rejection of
the paradigm (in Althusser’s terms: the problematic) of ideology as part of the realm of
consciousness. He suggests that ideology is "profoundly unconscious", by which he
means: "Ideology is a system of representations which in the majority of cases have
nothing to do with ’consciousness’: they are usually images and occasionally concepts,
they are perceived-accepted-suffered cultural objects and they act functionally on men via
a process that escapes them" (FM 233). -- Ideology is an objective social reality, the
ideological struggle is an organic part of the class struggle (FM 12).
This leads Althusser to the formulation of a second aspect of ideology: "Ideology is the
’lived’ relation between men and the world" (FM 233) resp. "in ideology ... men express ...
the way they live the relation between them and their conditions of existence: this
presupposes both a real relation and an ’imaginary’, ’lived’ relation" (FM 233). This
concept of ideology, partly borrowed from Gramsci, is similar to Raymond Williams’
concept of culture as lived experience (not confined to ’high’ art), and as a ’structure of
Ideology is a complex, overdetermined relation between relations: for in ideology people
express not only the relation between them and their conditions of existence (a ’real’
relation) but also the way they live that relation (an ’imaginary’ relation).
The other aspects of his theory of ideology Althusser explained in his essay ’Ideology and
Ideological State Apparatuses’ (ISA) (Althusser 1971). In the first part of ’ISA’ he argued
the thesis that for any issue of social theory it is necessary to think this from the view of
’reproduction’ and in particular the way a social formation must reproduce itself over time
(cf Althusser 1971, 128ff; Barrett 1991, 96). A central force - and object - of this process of
reproduction is the state. But while Marx and Lenin had equated the state with repression5
(esp. police, army, prisons, administration, censorship), Althusser claims that in modern
states the production of voluntary agreement of the (majority of the) population is
necessary for the reproduction of class domination. The central mechanisms to ensure
this consent are relatively autonomous Ideological State Apparatuses (churches, schools,
law, political system, corporations, media, culture, family) (Althusser 1971, 143).
5 in their theories - in political texts they also write about other functions, but without having
systematized it in a theoretical form (Althusser 1971, 142).
Althusser was fiercely criticised, by Bhaskar, Hall and many others, for not having left any
room for resistance, contestation, counter-hegemony and struggle in this part of his
theory. The power of ideological incorporation seems to function without remainder. In a
short postscript, he did mention the struggles of resisting people6, but he did not integrate
it in the core of his theory.
Another point of critique is that Althusser obviously is only talking about class relations
and completely ignoring other relations of power and dominance and their intersection
with (not: derivation of) class relations - for example gender relations, ethnic relations, ...
(it seems to me that a large part of Critical Realist texts is following Althusser’s class
reductionism in this point).
One of the most excellent ’Althusserian’ elaboration of the issues of state, ideology and
class relations in capitalist social formations is certainly the work of Nicos Poulantzas. In
the chapter ’The Ideological Apparatuses: Does the State equal Repression plus
Ideology?’ in his last book Poulantzas makes an important critical contribution to
Althusser’s conception: "the relation of the masses to power and the State ... always
possesses a material substratum. ... in working for class hegemony, the State acts within
an unstable equilibrium of compromises between the dominant classes and the
dominated. The State therefore continually adopts material measures which are of
positive significance for the popular masses, even though these measures represent so
many concessions imposed by the struggle of the subordinate classes. This essential
material aspect cannot be explained if the relationship between State and popular masses
is reduced to the couplet repression-ideology." (Poulantzas 2000/1980, 30f)7
In the second part of his ISA-essay Althusser elaborates a preliminary theory of ’ideology
in general’. One of the core mechanisms of ideology is to constitute human subjects via
interpellation (by a Great Subject, be it God, or the nation, patriarchy, universalism, ...; de
facto by an intersection of these Subjects): "Ideology interpellates concrete individuals as
concrete subjects" (Althusser 1971, 173): the action of ideology is to enable and ensure
the subject’s recognition of itself as a subject and it is a process that works through
securing the obvious. In one sense, ideology works by making the subject recognise itself
in a certain specific way, and simultaneously by construing that specific nature as the
obvious or natural one for itself (in French: re-connaissance/ mé-connaissance). Essential
for this mechanism of interpellation is the category of the subject and its functioning, esp.
the ambiguity of the term subject. Subject on the one hand means a free subjectivity, a
centre of intiatives, author of and responsible for its actions", on the other hand "a
6 "In fact, the state and its apparatuses only have meaning from the point of view of the class
struggle, as an apparatus of class struggle ensuring class oppression and guaranteeing the
conditions of exploitation and its reproduction" (ISA 171).
7 Furthermore Poulantzas is an example of a differentiated reception of non-Marxist theories. In
’State, Power, Socialism’ he criticises Foucault’s "failure to provide a basis for resistance to power"
(p. 79) but at the same time he takes up Foucault’s "indisputable merits" for a materialist theory of
various forms of power strategies (p. 44).
subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom
except that of freely accepting his submission" (Althusser 1971, 182). So if ideological
interpellation functions without resistance, without problems, individuals believe to act
’freely’ when they ’live’ religious, sexist, racist etc. ideologies; they recognize that they are
"a subject through the Subject and subjected to the Subject" (Althusser 1971, 179).
A central capacity of ideology is to represent to human beings an imaginary conception of
their own subjectivity. Although Althusser does not here mention Lacan by name, both his
understanding of Freud and his comments on the imaginary construction of human
subjects are heavily indebted to Lacan’s paper on ’The Mirror Phase’" (Payne 1997, 41).8
The ISA essay is divided into two parts - a division which is not only pertinent to the
subject matter but which marks a problem too: Althusser did not manage to connect them
in a consistent theory. "Althusser’s failure to reconcile these two perspectives, in what has
become an extraordinarily influential essay, has contributed in no small measures to a
continuing divide between two traditions of work on ideology: those who see ideology as
functional to the reproduction of capitalism and those who see ideology as a key to the
understanding of subjectivity as an important question in its own right." (Barrett 1991, 97)
I think one should extend this statement to the question of a combination of all four
aspects of Althusser’s theory.
When Althusser claims that ideology in general is "omni-historical" (Althusser 1971), that
ideology will exist in all societies (FM 232, 235), he wants to say that firstly that we can
never become the fully inidividuated, autonomous subject projected by rationalist
philosophies (cf. Payne 1997, 41), and secondly, that no social formation can exist without
a social organization of production, and corresponding ideological forms, that "ideology is
indispensible in any society if men are to be formed, transformed and equipped to
respond to the demands of their conditions of existence". Therefore "historical materialism
cannot conceive that even a communist society could ever do without ideology, be it
ethics, art, or ’world outlook’" (FM 234). But of course he did in no way maintain that there
would also necessarily exist certain ideologies as racism, sexism, class ideologies, etc.
Critical Realism on ideology
The most important contribution of Critical Realism to the debate on ideology concerns the
science-ideology-relation: as I have mentioned at the beginning, Bhaskar adopted much
of Althusser’s epistemological theses: the concept of the knowledge process as a process
of production; the critique of empiricism, pragmatism, individualism; etc.
But while Althusser did not talk very much about questions of ontology, Roy Bhaskar
presented a highly differentiated edifice of reflections on ontological questions (RTS;
8 A different version of Althusser’s relation to Lacan was recently offered by Henry Krips (1999).
PON; SRHE; DPF). In doing so Bhaskar developed a series of concepts9: transitive and
intransitive dimension, stratification of being, ontological realism, justificational rationalism,
epistemological relativism, emergence, explanatory critique, transformational model of
social activity, etc.
Critical Realists define ideology as a "system of errors", as a configuration of fallacies
(ontic fallacy, epistemic fallacy, naturalistic fallacy, ....) and conflations (upward, downward
and central conflation; cf. Archer 1996). These fallacies and conflations can be described
as "ideology in the sense that they are not just mistakes, but ones which function in the
interest of a particular social system" (Collier 1994, 104).
Theoretical ideologies are seen as reflecting and rationalizing the practical consciousness
which is itself a mystifying reflection of the social reality of which it is a necessary element"
(Collier 1994, 188; Bhaskar SRHE, 180-211).
In this kind of explanation ideology is conceived as a simple (functional) relation between
institutions and beliefs about them (cf. Collier 1994, 172, on ideology and wage-form) -
and not as a double relation as in Althusser’s concept. Therefore Critical Realism is
lacking both a concept of ideology as lived relation of people to their conditions of
existence and a concept of the (necessary?) contribution of ideology in the constitution of
In DPF (Bhaskar 1993) Bhaskar discriminates between a general and a narrow concept of
ideology: in the most general sense ideology is "generated and reproduced and/or
transformed at the intersection of power, discursive and normative social, material, inter-
and intrasubjective relations", the narrower concept relates to misconceptions of reality,
examples of which would be: "to see war as a game, to think of women as inferior to men,
or Marx’ justly famous analyses of the value and wage forms" (DPF 119f).
And he does - like Althusser - stress that explanatory critique is not sufficient to defeat
ideologies. "Insofar as they are causaly efficacious, the social relations and interests
underpinning them (and thus also the ideologies themselves) will not bend to explanatory
critique alone. Rather this will depend on a type of agency called "transformed,
transformative, totalizing (all-inclusive and auto-reflexive) and transformist (oriented to
structural change, informed by explanatory critique, concrete utopianism and participatory-
animating/activating research) praxis/politics" (DPF 120). But even if such Big Concepts
seem to include everything, I still cannot see that the aspects of ideology mentioned
above (constitution of subjectivity, lived experience) are consistently theorized in DPF -
but may be I am blind.
Such a ’4-t-praxis’ should lead to a "eudaimonistic pluriverse that would consist in a
plurality of processes in which heterology was minimized to a level in which it would be
said that each was true to, of and for themselves and each other and the trans-specific
contexts which they both contain and are contained by." (DPF 120) This utopian image
9 I think that many of these concepts are compatible with Althusser’s philosophy because they are
present implicitly but not elaborated in his texts.
starts from the premise that transparency of all social relations and all individuals would
be the ultimate goal of a free resp. communist society, a concept developed by Hegel and
the young Marx (cf. The German Ideology: in its Hegelian language: science wouldn’t be
necessary any longer because there would be no more difference between essence and
appearences, this means everyone would be identical to herself and to the others) (for a
critique of further Hegelian-idealist topoi in DPF and FEW cf Hostettler/Norrie in ’Alethia’
Cultural Studies on ideology
The field of Cultural Studies is very heterogenous, so it is impossible to make assertions
about the whole thing, about Cultural Studies ’as such’. One can only discuss about
specific parts related to certain topics. In relation to questions of critical realist
epistemology and ontology one could roughly divide Cultural Studies - into four
a: authors explicitly receiving critical realist insights, b: authors implicitly practising critical
realist insights, c: authors explicitly rejecting any form of realism, and, finally, d: authors
implicitly practising irrealist positions.10
ad a:) A Cultural Studies researcher explicitly using critical realist argumentation in his
debate with colleagues is David Morley.
Morley has done much research in the production and consumption of culture, especially
on topics such as broadcasting about industrial and labour conflicts and the reception of
verious TV-reports. The question of communication studies, or media studies, is not only
what meaning the producer intended to convey, or what the ’objective meaning’ of a
media message would be, but what meaning was actually conveyed. In other words, the
audience is not a passive recipient but an active participant in the creation/production of
meaning; because "symbolic work" is a necessary and constituive part of each human
action (Willis 1990). The politico-strategical intention of this Cultural Studies view is to
argue that if we want to organize opposition to or subversion of the prevailing social
structures we have to know - and therefore we have to analyse - how people produce the
meanings they live, we have to attempt "to capture people’s lived experience and how
they make sense of it" (Barrett 1999, 163). It is not sufficient to analyse merely the
structure and function of commoditiy fetishism, of ideological institutions and so on.
Morley’s critique - inside the field of Cultural Studies - is focused on certain ethnographic
approaches "which add up only to a set of micro-narratives, outside any effective macro-
political or cultural frame" (Morley 1997, 126); these theories "leave one, in the end, able
only to tell individual stories of (logically) infinite differences" (Morley 1997, 127). In
Morley’s perspective, the "objective must not be to substitute one (micro or macro) level of
10 And, of course, various mixtures of a, b and d in one and the same text.
analysis for the other, but rather to attempt to integrate the analysis of the broader
questions of ideology, power and politics with the analysis of the consumption, use and
functions of television in everyday life".
A further object of Morley’s critique is John Hartley’s constructivist account of the
television audience as a "ficitional object", holding that "in no case the audience is ’real’ or
external to its discursive construction. There is no ’actual’ audience that lies beyond its
production as a category ... audiences are only ever encountered as representations"
(Hartley). Morley not simply rejects this approach but gives a differentiating critique, based
explicitly on Christopher Norris’ work on Critical Realism: "This stress on the
institutionalized discursive practices through which television audiences are constructed is
of considerable value, as a corrective to any simple-minded ’naive realism’ in the research
process. However, it is possible to recognize the necessarily constructivist dimension of
any research process without claiming that audiences only exist discursively. To argue
otherwise is to confuse a problem of epistemology with one of ontology." (Morley 1997,
134f) There would be "significant epistemological and political deficiences" in postmodern
In his considerations about ideology Morley focuses on the construction of subjectivities
and its relation to economic, political and ideological power.
Chris Barker, on the other hand, who has recently published a comprehensive book about
Cultural Studies (Barker 2000), is explicitly rejecting both: any form of realism and any
concept of ideology.
Barker suggests that "the most significant debate centred on epistemology, on questions
about the status of knowledge and truth, has been between representationalist (i.e. realist)
and anti-representationalist (poststructuralism, postmodernism and pragmatism) views. ...
Those who maintain a realist line, often in its quasi-Marxist guise, argue that a degree of
certain knowledge about an independent world (a real world) is possible ... In contrast
poststructuralist/ postmodern epistemology adopts Nietzsche’s characterisation of truth as
a ’mobile army of metaphors and metonyms’." According to this position knowledge is "a
question not of true discovery but of the construction of interpretations about the world
which are taken to be true. In so far as the idea of truth has an historical purchase, it is the
consequence of power, that is, of whose interpretations are to count as truth." (Barker
2000, 26f, 143) ... ’regimes of truth’ (146)
Although Barker concedes that "there are critics who feel that a more certain basis of
knowledge is required for the political project of Cultural Studies to be maintained", he still
is convinced that only an epistemology based on the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein
and Richard Rorty is possible and justifiable. In his corresponding argumentation he
constructs a binary opposition between postmodern and realist philosophies. The only
realism he ’accepts’ - following Rorty - being a naive, essentialist, metaphysical realism.
Barker suggests replacing the concept of ideology by Foucault’s concept of
power/knowledge. It would not be possible, he argues, to compare ideology with science -
by casting the former as ’misrecognition’, because "science is a mode of thinking and a
set of procedures which produces certain kinds of knowledge; it is not an elevated God-
like form of knowledge which produces objective truth beyond dispute" (Barker 2000, 63).
Thus Barker again has constructed another binary opposition.
To be clear: the problem with this binary opposition is not only that it is binary; what is
problematic in the first place is the kind of construction of the elements of this opposition:
especially the realist position is presented in a way that a critical realist position will
become unthinkable. Of course, he does not discuss Roy Bhaskar’s - or any other -
critique of Rorty’s philosophy (Bhaskar 1989).
From his epistemological premises Barker concludes that the only concept of ideology is
one that is interchangeable with the Foucauldian notion of power/knowledge; so his
definition is: ideologies are world views of any social groups which justify their actions but
which cannot be counterpoised to truth; however they can be subjected to redescription
and thus do not have to be accepted" (Barker 2000, 64)
One of the central figures of British Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall, could be characterized as
combining an implicit critical realist philosophy with a Gramscian theory of ideology and
hegemony. But it is nearly impossible to give a short description of Hall’s approach,
because his theoretical activity covers a period of four decades, during which he absorbed
all major developments in philosophy and social sciences, ranging from Althusser and
Poulantzas to Voloshinov, Foucault, Derrida, feminism and psychoanalysis.
Yet Hall has always remained critical to certain strands of "postmodern philosophy, ...
because their concept of identity is absolutly free-floating and it suggests (es macht uns
vor) that identities would exist isolated of historical and social conditions". But we cannot,
in a postmodern amnesia, forget or ignore our past, so Hall. It is impossible to take any
position at any time (Hall 1999a, 148f).
In his analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s political programme Hall argued that "the ideology
of the radical right is less an ’expression’ of economic recession than the recession’s
condition of existence" (Hall 1980; Barrett 1999, 162f).11 Hall theorized thatcherite politics
as the building of a new hegemonic project: a project to change the way in which people
live out social and political conflict. In this, the popular appeal of an authoritarian language
was crucial. Hall concludes that only by understanding the deep nature of the shift
towards authoritarianism at a popular level could the left begin to think about challenging
the Thatcherist project.
In the 1990s Hall shifted his focus to the question of production and re-production of self
and ’other’ in various political-cultural fields (films, racism, nationalism, ...). In this he drew
11 In my view it is problematic to simply reverse the usual chain of determinism; it would be more
adequate to study the articulation of economic change, political and ideological strategies and