You are here: Home / Concepts / Ideology

This project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research grant and is supported by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) and Kingston University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

AHRC logo

CRMEP logo


Equally inspired by Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser, the Cahiers pour l’Analyse witnessed an effort to produce a formalised account of ideology in accordance with the tenets of psychoanalysis and Marxism. The relation of ideology to science would be a fundamental site of discord within the Cahiers themselves.

Though in its most conventional usage the term ‘ideology’ refers to something like ‘worldview’ or ‘outlook’, and in contemporary political discourse it is often used to distinguish political party lines, the concept of ‘ideology’ occupies a crucial, and contested, position in the history of Marxist thought. The term was first coined by Destutt de Tracy in 1796, yoking together the roots -logy and ideo- to denote the ‘science of ideas’. The word first became a mark of opprobrium when Napoleon castigated the republicanism of the idéologues opposed to his reforms.1 But it was with Marx’s essay The German Ideology that the term first set off on its complex trajectory in the Marxist canon itself.2

For Marx, the ‘German ideology’ referred to an excessive investment in the domain of ‘pure thought’, rather than the world of concrete material relations and conditions, dominant among the ‘Young Hegelians’. Marx articulated his method in opposing terms:

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated and thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.3

The idealist philosophy of the Young Hegelians, a group which included Max Stirner, Bruno Bauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach, among others, was, for all intents and purposes, backwards. ‘Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life […] Where speculation ends - in real life - there real, positive science begins: the representation of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men. Empty talk about consciousness ceases, and real knowledge has to take its place.’4

In this work, Marx is targeting a specific body of thought, the ‘German ideology’ of post-Hegelian speculative philosophy. But Marx’s critique of the ‘German ideology’ also provides the lineaments of a critique of ideology tout court as a kind of blindness to real, material conditions. With Engels, the concept will come to be roughly equivalent to ‘false consciousness’, in particular the false consciousness of a working class mystified by the ideas of the dominant class, the bourgeoisie. In 1923, Georg Lukács published his History and Class Consciousness, a book written remarkably without the benefit of The German Ideology or other of Marx’s early writings.5 In this seminal text for Western Marxism, the overcoming of alienation is tantamount to an escape from the self-alienating false consciousness of the positivistic and empirical worldview of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat was the class that would accomplish this overturning, and its mechanism would be the work of a generalised class consciousness developed and fortified in both theory and practice. But Lukács recognised, no less than Engels had before, that the proletariat was mystified in bourgeois ideology. Consequently, in a synthesis of Hegelianism and Leninism, he insisted upon the need for a revolutionary party leadership that has already broken with ‘ideology’ and incarnates the consciousness of the epoch.

For Lukács, overcoming ideology meant abandoning the positivism and empiricism of the sciences through a dialectical thinking of the social totality. If his thinking restored something of the dialectical elements of Marx’s thought, certain aspects of Lukács’ project seemed to go against the grain of Marx’s own writings, e.g., the claim that ‘positive science’ begins when ‘empty talk about consciousness ceases.’

The return to the humanism (and Hegelianism) of the young Marx ushered in by Lukács’ work, along with the collapse of the Stalinist model of Soviet Communism, provides the essential framework for understanding Louis Althusser’s intervention into Marxist theory and his arguments concerning ideology more specifically. Polemically positioning himself in opposition to Marxist humanism, Althusser insisted in a series of works in the 1960s that Marx had indeed founded a science, the science of historical materialism, and that what made this a science was its epistemological break with the humanist, and Hegelian, ideology of Marx’s youth. Althusser’s relentless affirmation of science in its opposition to ideology would be of crucial importance to the normaliens behind the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

Many definitions of ideology can be found throughout Althusser’s oeuvre, but they all share a common theme insofar as ideology ceases to be confused with anything like ‘false consciousness’ and comes to be tantamount to a category coextensive with the domain of lived experience itself. The most famous definition of ideology in Althusser’s writings comes from his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation’ (1970), a text which reflects Althusser’s own theoretical investigations undertaken in correspondence with the editors of the Cahiers.6 There ideology is defined as ‘a “representation” of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.’7 In this essay, Althusser refined his position on ideology as it was expressed in For Marx and Reading Capital, wherein the science/ideology distinction was of primary concern. In ‘Marxism and Humanism’ (1964), Althusser had asserted that whereas socialism is a scientific concept, humanism is an ideological one. ‘When I say that the concept of humanism is an ideological concept (not a scientific one), I mean that while it really does designate a set of existing relations, unlike a scientific concept, it does not provide us with a means of knowing them’; it does not ‘give us their essences.’8 Marx arrived at his ‘scientific theory of history’, historical materialism, by showing that the framework of the alienation of human essence found in Feuerbach was essentially ideological.

Althusser’s goal in this essay was to make the case for a science that had broken with ideology, and in this it remained crucially reliant upon The German Ideology. But the lineaments of Althusser’s later position concerning ideology as the domain of practice itself were already clear: ‘An ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society’.9 As such, ideology is an ‘organic part of every social totality’ and the very idea of a society without ideology is an ideological one. This being the case, the aim of ‘theoretical practice’ should be to ‘transform ideology into an instrument of deliberate action on history.’10

It is here that Althusser’s break with a notion of ideology as ‘false consciousness’ is its most evident. Ideology, he maintains, is not something that takes place on the level of consciousness. Rather, it is ‘is profoundly unconscious, even when it presents itself in a reflected form’. ‘Ideology is indeed a system of representations, but in the majority of cases these representations have nothing to do with “consciousness”: they are usually images and occasionally concepts, but it is above all as structures that they impose on the vast majority of men, not via their “consciousness”.’11

Althusser’s arguments in this essay reflect his own engagement with Jacques Lacan’s ideas around this time. In 1964, the same year ‘Marxism and Humanism’ first appeared, Althusser also published ‘Freud and Lacan’ in La Nouvelle Critique. The publication of this text in the official intellectual journal of the French Communist Party was a deliberate attempt to make the case for psychoanalysis’s pertinence to the Marxist enterprise despite years of neglect and dismissal by the official party line. Althusser understood his own relation to Marx in a manner similar to Lacan’s relation to Freud; both were saving the genius of the ‘master’ from ideological mystification through a return to the original’s anti-humanism and scientism. Beyond methodological similarities, however, Althusser’s use of the term ‘imaginary’ - in both ‘Marxism and Humanism’ and in the later essay on ideological state apparatuses - must be understood in a Lacanian sense. In his earliest writings, Lacan had introduced a tripartite distinction among the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. If the ‘real’ referred to the un-representable materiality of existence itself, and the ‘symbolic’ referred to the domain of signification constituted by the subject’s entrance into language, the ‘imaginary’ expressed the ‘stage’ wherein the subject first ‘miscognises’ itself as a discrete, embodied subject in a broader field of relations. This was the thesis of Lacan’s famous lesson on the ‘mirror stage’ (E 93-100), which described the moment wherein the infant, seeing himself in the mirror for the first time (or another infant whose movements he mimics) identifies his own ego with the image of himself as a constituted whole. In this very identification, an inadequacy is established in that, given the infant’s limited motor control, he cannot fully ‘live up’ to the wholeness of the ‘ego-ideal’ experienced in the specular image of himself. The site of this phenomenon is the domain of the ‘imaginary’ in Lacan’s rubric.

The Lacanian imaginary was a crucial component of Althusser’s theory of ideology. For Lacan, the specular identification constitutive of the imaginary as a field of representations was a thoroughly unavoidable, and inescapable, element of lived existence. For Althusser, the field of ‘ideology’ was equally omnipresent and the domain in which all practical relations effectively took place. It was the task of science, for Althusser, and psychoanalysis for Lacan, to articulate and make known the structure; thinking the relation between science and ideology and the practical implications of making this distinction were arguably the two primary concerns of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

The first direct mention of ‘ideology’ in the Cahiers is in Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘La Suture: Éléments d’un logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3). Miller’s goal in this text is to show how the constitution of whole numbers in Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic is predicated upon a suture which covers over an inaugural lack. In positing the number zero as the concept for the category ‘that which is not identical to itself’, Frege also establishes the concept of unity, or One, that will then allow, via the successor function, the proliferation of whole numbers. Miller detects the ideological gesture par excellence in this attribution of unity, via the concept or ‘name’ of zero, to that which is essentially void, or lack. He writes:

For the unity which is thus assured both for the individual and the set, it only holds in so far as the number functions as its name. Whence originates the ideology which makes of the subject the producer of fictions, short of recognizing it as the product of its product - an ideology in which logical and psychological discourse are wedded with political discourse occupying the key position, which can be seen admitted in Ockham, concealed in Locke, and miscognized thereafter (CpA 1.3:41).

The ‘fiction’ in question here is that of a full self-presence akin to that established in the specular miscognition of Lacan’s mirror stage. Miller invests this problematic with political weight, seeing it as formally related to the putative self-presence of the autonomous subject in political liberalism (hence the reference to Locke).

Volume 2 of the Cahiers is titled, ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’. Although Georges Canguilhem does not use the term ‘ideology’ in the essay that opens this volume (CpA 2.1), in the following piece Robert Pagès addresses the role that ‘ideological implications’ play in Canguilhem’s assessments of the social and psychological sciences (CpA 2.2:96). The main concern of Canguilhem’s essay is the difficulty that psychology has historically had in determining its scientific object and its relationship with other modes of social practice and inquiry.

Volume 2 concludes with the first of Thomas Herbert’s two contributions to the Cahiers (Herbert was the pen name for Michel Pêcheux). In this piece, titled, ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales et, spécialement, de la psychologie sociale’ (CpA 2.6), Herbert develops a critique of social psychology modelled on the epistemology Althusser outlined in his essay ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’.12 Herbert describes the ‘theoretical practice’ anterior to an epistemological break as ‘ideological practice’, but also affirms the persistence of ‘ideological contents’ alongside all forms of theoretical and political practice (CpA 2.6:144-5).

Herbert claims that psychology and social psychology, especially when they have resort to ‘models’ and practical instruments, remain caught in the ideological schema of the ‘realisation of the real’ (CpA 2.6:155). They remain governed by economic conditions, reflecting the social relations characteristic of capitalism and the ideology of adaptation (CpA 2.6:157). This ideology, nevertheless, is different in kind to the inessential ideologies of alchemy or ancient astronomy, for example. Developing Althusser’s account of the three ‘generalities’ involved in the process of theoretical practice, Herbert suggests that the ideology of the social sciences can be taken precisely as the first set of ‘generalities’ upon which theoretical practice sets to work. Theoretical practice does not aim to ‘realise the real’, but rather to trace the breaks that constitute new sciences, and to show how, once constituted, the objects of these sciences are capable of methodical reproduction (CpA 2.6:160). Herbert’s later contribution to the Cahiers (CpA 9.5) will attempt this ‘practice’ in an examination of the emergence and reproduction of ideology itself.

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 3.1) in Volume 3, Lacan uses the term ‘ideology’ in a derisive manner that is nonetheless evocative of its Althusserian usage as he explains the origins of his argument concerning the mirror-stage:

The autonomous ego, the conflict-free sphere proposed as a new Gospel by Mr. Heinz Hartmann to the New York circle is no more than the ideology of a class of immigrants preoccupied with the prestigious values prevailing in central European society when with the diaspora of the war they had to settle in a society in which values sediment according to the scale of income tax (CpA 3.1: 8 trans. 108-09).

In his ‘Nature, Culture, Écriture’ in Volume 5, Jacques Derrida describes ‘the Saussurian exclusion of writing’ as ‘ideology’ (CpA 4.1:28) and ultimately goes on to criticize Lévi-Strauss’s ‘political ideology’ as an example of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ (CpA 4.1:41):

Previously the empirical character of the analyses concerning the status of science and the accumulation of knowledge removed all rigor from each of the propositions advanced and permitted their consideration with an equal pertinence as true or false. It is the pertinence of the question which appeared doubtful. The same thing happens here again. What is called enslavement can equally legitimately be called liberation. And it is at the moment that this oscillation is stopped on the signification of enslavement that the discourse is frozen into a determined ideology that we would judge disturbing if such were our first preoccupation here (CpA 4.1:41; trans. 131).

In the same issue, Jean Jean Mosconi also assesses Lévi-Strauss’s work and its return to an originary model of culture as being against the ‘ideology of the progress of the human mind [esprit]’ (CpA 4.2:53).

In volume 5, devoted to Freud, Michel Tort concludes that, by taking biology as his model of scientificity, Freud winds up with an ideological concept of drive (CpA 5.2:65): that ‘Freud should finish up with pure speculation is sufficient to indicate without ambiguity that this “biology” is an ideological myth […] A form of scientificity which can only be imported into a domain in a speculative form is ideological for sure.’

Volume 6 concerns ‘La politique des philosophes’ and contains François Regnault’s ‘La pensée du Prince’, an assessment of Machiavelli’s efforts to produce a science of politics in the ‘ideological terrain that was given to him’ (CpA 6.2:34). Bernard Pautrat’s introduction of texts by Hume emphasises the latter’s destruction of the notion of autonomous subjectivity one finds in Locke’s example and develops his alternative univocal conception of the subject as that which is obedient or subjected to authority (CpA 6.5). Nonetheless, Pautrat remarks, the ‘imaginary subject of illusory autonomy’ persists and continues to ground ‘psychology as ideology as such’ (CpA 6.5:73). In the final article of this issue, Jacques Bouveresse criticises the romantic and messianic elements in Fichte’s political thought which, by allowing for the belief in some kind of ‘direct access to the Idea’, make possible ‘all the aberrations of the ideology of the Leader’ (CpA 6.7:107).

Volume 8 of the Cahiers is devoted exclusively to ‘L’Impensée de Jean-Jacques Rousseau’ and opens with Louis Althusser’s famous reading of the discrepancies [décalages] that constitute Rousseau’s theory of the social contract (CpA 8.1). Althusser concludes that the tensions that inhere in Rousseau’s theory, and which surround the equivocal nature of the ‘particular’ in its relation to the general will, can only be surmounted through a permanent ‘flight forward in ideology’ (a ceaseless effort to educate and ‘purify’ the interests and morals of the individuals who make up the social contract) on the one hand, and on the other, an effort to regress or turn the clock back in ‘(economic) reality’, by retreating to ‘the old dream of “independent commerce”, i.e. of petty artisanal production’ (CpA 8.1:39-41). The only means of achieving this latter goal, however, is yet more ‘moral preaching’. Rousseau’s attempt to propose a practical means of suppressing the existence of social classes or factions thereby falls into a vicious circle: ‘flight forward in ideology, regression in the economy, flight forward in ideology, etc.’ This final discrepancy is thus ‘the Discrepancy of theory with respect to the real in its effect: a discrepancy between two equally impossible practices. As we are now in reality, and can only turn round and round in it (ideology-economy-ideology, etc.), there is no further flight possible in reality itself. End of the Discrepancy’ (42).

Althusser concludes his analysis with the suggestion that Rousseau’s ‘fictions’ - e.g., Émile, La Nouvelle Heloise - are the site of this ideological flight forward. In the next article of this issue, Alain Grosrichard makes a virtue of this ostensibly critical remark of Althusser’s in order to argue that the ‘moral preaching’ in Rousseau’s literary output constitutes a necessary ideological counterweight to the analyses found in the Discourses and other political writings. It is the tension established between these two poles of his thinking that constitutes the ‘Gravité de Rousseau’, the title of Grosrichard’s article (CpA 8.2).

In Volume 9, ‘Généalogie des sciences’, François Regnault’s ‘Dialectique d’épistémologies’ (CpA 9.4), assumes the Althusserian distinction between science and ideology as a matter of course in its effort to enumerate the possible relations between a science and a theory of science, that is, an epistemology.

The most extensive engagement with ideology in the whole of the Cahiers is also found in this issue in Thomas Herbert’s second article, titled: ‘Remarques pour une théorie générale des idéologies’ (CpA 9.5). In this article, Herbert pursues an extremely technical analysis that complements his earlier invocation of Althusser’s arguments from ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ with a more robust engagement with Lacan’s account of metaphor and metonymy in the chain of signification. The primary concern is how ideological semantèmes, or ‘units of meaning’ become displaced from one level of the social totality (e.g., the economic) to another (e.g., the political), and how, in turn, this very displacement mechanism creates the possibility of an ‘ideological mutation’ in the transfer:

As the horizontal articulation of ideological elements according to a syntactic structure, the metonymic effect produces a rationalization-automisation at all structural levels, each of which will now appear endowed with ‘internal coherence.’ In this way the subject’s identification to the political and ideological structures that constitute subjectivity as the origin of what the subject says and does (the norms he states and practices) is produced: this subjective illusion through which, to use a phenomenological expression, the ‘consciousness of being in a situation’ is constituted hides from the agent his own position in the structure (CpA 9.5:88).

In order to further clarify the metonymy/metaphor relation in the production of ideological subjectivity, Herbert turns to Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between the law and the rule. In effect, Herbert argues, one will never be able to break from a set of ideological coordinates by focusing on the rules which govern a network of syntactical relations; much more crucial is the law which institutes these rules in the first place. This distinction allows Herbert to contrast the implications of his framework from a focus on class consciousness in a Lukácsian vein. Becoming aware of the ‘pre-conscious rules’ which structure a social totality is insufficient for liberating a subject from his alienation; what is needed is a confrontation with the ‘mechanism of the unconscious Law’ which determines the set of rules in the first place.

This ‘mechanism’ is the object of analysis in Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’, also published in volume 9 of the Cahiers. Again developing Lacan’s theories on this score, Miller considers ‘ideology’ in terms of an ‘imaginary miscognition’ (CpA 9.6:96). More specifically, Miller claims that ideology always accompanies scientific discourse because the latter is established through the exclusion of lack (a process described a propos of Frege in CpA 1.3). But since, for Miller, ‘the lack of a lack is also a lack’, ‘the lack of the lack leaves in every scientific discourse the mark of the miscognition, of the ideology that accompanies it, without being intrinsic to it.’ (CpA 9.6:102). Insofar as science involves a foreclosure, it leaves a space where ideology can be fostered. Appealing to the idea of an ‘impossible’ and ‘anonymous’ doctrine of science, Miller insists that his own account of the subjective ‘guarantee’ of science should not itself be confused with ‘ideology’ (CpA 9.6:105).

A critique of Miller’s arguments on this topic constitutes one of the key articles of Cahiers’ tenth and final volume, Alain Badiou’s ‘Marque et manque: À propos du zero’ (CpA 10.8). Badiou’s position in this article is not a wholesale rejection of Miller’s own. Rather, Badiou’s claim is that the process of suturation that Miller describes applies perfectly - though solely - to ideology. The subject as such is an ideological category that has no place in science: ‘there is always a subject of ideology, for this is the very mark by which we recognize the latter. Place of lack; splitting of the closed: these are the concepts on whose basis we can elaborate the law governing the functioning of ideological discourse’. (CpA 10.8:162).

For Badiou, the maintenance of the distinction between science and ideology along Althusserian lines is imperative: ‘to claim that the science/ideology difference could be effaced through a logic of the oscillating iteration, and to nominate a subject of science, is to preclude the possibility of conjoining, through their very disjunction, Marx and Freud’ (CpA 10.8:162).

The precise nature of the theoretical relation between Marx and Freud, much like the conceptual relation between science and ideology, would remain unresolved in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, even as this irresolution would nonetheless provide one of the most fecund avenues for theoretical work carried out in their wake.


  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Sur la Dialectique matérialiste’. La Pensée 110 (August 1963). Reprinted in Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero, 1965. ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1969.
  • ---. ‘Freud et Lacan’. La Nouvelle Critique 161-2 (December 1964 - January 1965; revised 1969). ‘Freud and Lacan’, trans. Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books, 1971.
  • ---. ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation’, trans. Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books, 1971.
  • ---. ‘Trois Notes sur la théorie des discours’. Écrits sur la psychanalyse. Paris: IMEC, 1995. ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’. In The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (1966-1967), trans. G.M. Goshgarian, ed. François Matheron. London: Verso, 2003.
  • ---. ‘Philosophy Course for Scientists’ (1967). Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, ed. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 1990.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.
  • Goldmann, Lucien. ‘Ideology and writing’, TLS, 28 September 1967.
  • Hall, Stuart. ‘The Problem of Ideology’. In Marx: A Hundred Years On, ed. Betty Matthews. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983.
  • Jameson, Fredric. ‘Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan’, Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977).
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits (1966), trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Lichtheim, George. ‘The Concept of Ideology’. History and Theory. Vol.4, No. 2, 1965.
  • Lukàcs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone. London: The Merlin Press, 1971.
  • Pêcheux, Michel and Michel Fichant. Sur l’histoire des sciences. Paris: Maspero, 1969. (Fascicule III in the ‘Cours de Philosophie pour Scientifiques’, 1967-68).
  • Ranciere, Jacques. ‘On the Theory of Ideology - Althusser’s Politics’. In A Radical Philosophy Reader, eds. Roy Edgley and Richard Osborne. London: Verso, 1985.
  • Tucker, Robert C. ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.


1. George Lichtheim, ‘The Concept of Ideology’, 165.

2. It should be noted that Marx’s essay was only made public in 1932 when it was published by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Although the term is used in various ways in Capital and other later works, the concept garners its most extensive treatment in this essay, famously described by Marx as his and Engels’ attempt to ‘settle accounts with [their] erstwhile philosophical conscience’ and consequently as a document ‘abandoned to the gnawing criticism of the mice’. The full text is available online at:

3. Marx-Engels Reader, 154.

4. Ibid., 155.

5. Substantial excerpts of this work are available online at:

6. Available online at: See as well Althusser’s ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, a document circulated to Badiou and Duroux among others, and in which many of the arguments of this later essay are discernable in embryo.

7. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 162.

8. Althusser, For Marx, 223.

9. Ibid., 231

10. Ibid., 232.

11. Ibid., 233.

12. Available online at: