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Marxism is essentially a materialist philosophy which aims at creating a classless society

based on common ownership. In the work The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and
Friedrich Engels have claimed that the history of every society is the history of class
struggles. Here in the essay, Althusser brings in the concept of State Apparatuses and how
class struggle always attempts to possess the State power which consequently results in the
possession of the State apparatuses. Marxism also believes that capitalism and
industrialisation have led to the alienation of people so much so that people have become
mere things. This is justified by Althusser's idea of Interpellation where ideology interpellates
or hails individuals as subjects. According to the traditional Marxist model, society is
constituted by Base and Superstructure. The base is the means of production while
superstructure is the cultural world. Traditionalists also believed that superstructure is
determined or shaped by the economic base and this is called Economic Determinism. This
one to one correspondence is negated by Althusser by bringing in the concept of
Overdeterminism which is the effect produced from a variety of interacting causes of

Althusser begins the essay by bringing in a statement of Karl Marx according to

which the ultimate condition of production is the reproduction of conditions of production
and for this one must reproduce the productive forces as well as the existing relations of
production. Reproductions of productive forces involve the reproduction of labour power.
The workers need the skills to work which they learn from the educational institutions
wherein they also learn the rules of good behaviour established by the dominant class.
Therefore reproduction of labour power involves the reproduction of submission to the rules
of established order which in other words is the ideological subjection.

Negating the one to one correspondence of traditional Marxist model of society, Althusser
believes that there is a ‘relative autonomy' of the superstructure with respect to the base or
infrastructure and also that there is a ‘reciprocal action' of the superstructure on the base. The
Marxist Theory says that the proletariat must seize the state power in order to destroy the
existing bourgeois State Apparatuses and replace it with the proletarian State Apparatuses.

There are two kinds of state apparatuses- Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and Ideological
State Apparatus (ISA). RSA functions by violence while ISA functions by ideology. RSA
include the police, the army, the government and the military while ISA includes religion,
education, family, legal, political, trade unions, communication and cultural arts. RSA could
be said as a single unit and as an organised whole while there is a plurality of ISAs and they
are distinctly multiple. RSA is a public domain while ISA is a private domain. RSA is
centralised under a commanding unit of political representatives of the ruling class in
possession of state power while ISA is relatively autonomous. RSA also functions by
ideology but it will always be a secondary functioning. In the case of army and police, we
find them trying to maintain ideological values. Similarly, we find ISA functioning through
violence too- churches and educational system have managed to result in punishments and

According to Althusser, no class can hold state power for too long without exercising its
hegemony over the ideological state apparatuses. The class cannot do away with ISA as
easily as RSA because of two reasons. The first reason is that the former ruling class retains a
strong hold over there. The other reason is the oppressed class finds a means of expression in
these ISAs. There is always a ruling ideology that ensures the harmony between RSA and
ISA and also between different ISAs. In the pre-capitalist period, the dominant ideological
state apparatus is church while in the capitalist period it is the educational institutions. It has
been said in Plato’s Republic that the key to sustaining a just state was controlling the
education of its citizens and thus certain dominant values are maintained according to the
wishes of the ruling class. The capitalist motives are concealed by a universally reigning
ideology that school is a neutral environment that is purged of any kind of ideology.

Ideology, Althusser says, has no history of its own and rather it has a non-historical reality or
omni-historical reality. Ideology is an allusion as well as an illusion of reality. It is an
imaginary relation to real relations and there are two reasons why this imaginary relation
exists. The first reason is that there are certain people who would like to take control of our
minds by providing a falsified representation of the world. The other reason is that men create
these imaginary relations to their conditions of existence is because these conditions of
existence are themselves alienating. Therefore, ideology is not the representation of real
relations to the existence of individuals but imaginary relations of these individuals to the real
relations in which they live. Ideology has a material existence and not a spiritual one.
Spiritual existence of ideology exists only in the idea or ideology and ideas. The moment
ideology becomes a part of apparatuses and its practises, which it always does, then its
existence becomes a materialistic one.

Every subject with consciousness believing in ideas must act according to his ideas. Althusser
says that "his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practises governed by
material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from
which derive the ideas of that subject". Hence, he concludes that there is no practise except
by and in an ideology and that there is no ideology except by the subjects and for the

The last part of the essay talks about how ideology interpellates or hails individuals as
subjects. Althusser believes that we are always already subjects and practise the rituals of
ideological recognition which assures us that we are concrete, individual, distinguishable and
naturally irreplaceable subjects. He takes the example of Christian Religious Ideology to
elaborate on the how ideology interpellates individuals as subjects. Religious ideologies
interpellate in the name of a unique and central other Subject and the Subject needs the
presence of subjects. Althusser makes use of Lacan’s concepts of imaginary, mirroring and
subject formation and Freud’s concepts of the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic. For
Althusser ideology is like the Imaginary and interpellation is similar to the notions of
mirroring and recognition. Just as a child recognises himself in the mirror, subjects recognise
themselves when they are interpellated or hailed. Ideology, thus, has a duplicate mirror
structure which ensures the interpellation of individuals as subjects, their subjection to the
Subject, the mutual recognition of subjects and the Subject, the subjects’ recognition of each
other, the subject’s recognition of himself and finally, the subject recognises what they are
and acts accordingly.

In conclusion, an individual is interpellated as a free subject so that he will freely submit or

accept his subjection. In standard Marxist tradition ideology is defined as “false
consciousness”. Althusser’s theory revises this same concept and reveals to us the subtle way
in which the society works. Ideology, according to Althusser, is the result of structural factors
in society and with this concept, he completely abandons the standard humanist notion of free
will and brings us a world wherein we learn the practise of obedience to the authority.


Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester University Press, 2010.

Brewster, Ben. Althusser Glossary 1969. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.