LOUIS ALTHUSSER complicates Marx's understanding of the relation between base and superstructure by adding his concept of "ideological state apparatuses." Marx distinguished among various "levels" in a society: the infrastructure or economic base and the superstructure, which includes political and legal institutions (law, the police, the government) as well as ideology (religious, moral, legal, political, etc.). The superstructure has a relative autonomy with relation to the base; it relies on the economic base but can sometimes persist for a long period after major changes in the economic base. Althusser does not reject the Marxist model; however, he does want to explore the ways in which ideology is more pervasive and more "material" than previously acknowledged. (See the previous module for Althusser on ideology.) As a result, he proposes to distinguish "ideological state apparatuses" (ISAs for short) from the repressive state apparatus (SA for short). The state apparatus includes "the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc." (Althusser, Lenin 96). These are the agencies that function "by violence," by at some point imposing punishment or privation in order to enforce power.

To distinguish ISAs from the SA, Althusser offers a number of examples:

  • the religious ISA (the system of the different public and private 'Schools'),
  • the family ISA,
  • the legal ISA,
  • the political ISA (the political system, including the different Parties),
  • the trade union ISA,
  • the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
  • the cultural ISA (Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.)

These ISAs, by contrast to the SA, are less centralized and more heterogeneous; they are also believed to access the private rather than the public realm of existence, although Althusser's goal here is to question the bourgeois distinction between private and public: "The distinction between the public and the private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law, and valid in the (subordinate) domains in which bourgeois law exercises its 'authority'" (Lenin 97). The main thing that distinguishes the ISAs from the SAs is ideology: "the Repressive State Apparatus functions 'by violence,' whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function 'by ideology'" (Lenin 97). To be more precise, Althusser explains that the SA functions predominantly by violence or repression and only secondarily by ideology. Similarly the ISAs function predominantly by ideology but can include punishment or repression secondarily: "Schools and Churches use suitable methods of punishment, expulsion, selection, etc., to 'discipline' not only their shepherds, but also their flocks. The same is true of the Family... The same is true of the cultural IS Apparatus (censorship, among other things), etc." (Lenin 98).

Although the ISAs appear to be quite disparate, they are unified by subscribing to a common ideology in the service of the ruling class; indeed, the ruling class must maintain a degree of control over the ISAs in order to ensure the stability of the repressive state apparatus (the SA): "To my knowledge, no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses" (Lenin 98). It is much harder for the ruling class to maintain control over the multiple, heterogeneous, and relatively autonomous ISAs (alternative perspectives can be voiced in each ISA), which is why there is a continual struggle for hegemony in this realm.

It is also worth mentioning that, according to Althusser, "what the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant ideological State apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant ideological State apparatus, the Church" (Lenin 103-04). Through education, each mass of individuals that leaves the educational system at various junctures (the laborers who leave the system early, the petty bourgeoisie who leave after their B.A.s, and the leaders who complete further specialist training) enters the work force with the ideology necessary for the reproduction of the current system: "Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfill in class society" (Lenin 105). Other ISAs contribute to the replication of the dominant ideology but "no other ideological State apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven" (Lenin 105). The very importance of this function is why schools are invested in hiding their true purpose through an obfuscating ideology: "an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is...lay), where teachers respectful of the 'conscience' and 'freedom' of the children who are entrusted to them (in complete confidence) by their 'parents' (who are free, too, i.e. the owners of their children) open up for them the path to the freedom, morality and responsibility of adults by their own example, by knowledge, literature and their 'liberating' virtues" (Lenin 105-06). So pervasive is this ideology, according to Althusser, that "those teachers who, in dreadful conditions, attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they 'teach' against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped... are a kind of hero" (Lenin 106).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Althusser: On Ideological State Apparatuses." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/marxism/modules/althusserISAs.html>.






Visits to the site since July 17, 2002