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Discussion: Rancière and Ideology



The article by Jacques Ranciere, ‘On the Theory
of Ideologv’ (Radical Philosophy 7) is one of the
most powerful critiques of Althusser’s work so far
to have been produced from the left. Given the
wide reception that Althusser’s work is now
receiving in Britain it is vital that the issues
which Ranciere raises are thoroughly discussed.

I offer the following in no sense as a clearly
worked-out critique of Ranciere, but as a set of
notes which at least indicate potential discussion

Ranciere argues that for.Althusser there are two
‘levels’ of ideological ‘disguise’ in class
societies: (a) resulting from the necessRry
opacity of the social formation and its agents ideology being conceived as regulating the relation
of individuals to their tasks (this level of disguise is common to all social formations), and
(b) ideological distortion arising from the
requirements of class domination. For Althusser
(b) may overdetermine (a). Ranciere attacks
these positions of Althusser by a series of
arguments, together with attempts to represent
them as e:fec~s of the articulation of non-Marxi~
problematlcs ln Althusser’s work with the Marxist,
problematic, and, in turn, as effects of
Althusser’s own class-position.

One of Ranciere’s arguments rests on a claim
that Althusser is generalising Marx’s 2-level
analysis of production (labour-process/productionprocess) to apply to the ideological level also.

The absurdily of this is ‘demonstrated’ by supposing the generalisation extended to demonstrate the
universal/necessary function of the political level
and hence the necessity of the state. Clearly
orthodox Marxism has always theorised the state as
an effect of class struggle and predicted its
demise with the cessation of classes and class
struggle. This argument·has 2 weaknesses – (i)
the identity ‘political level’/’state’, which it
presupposes is unargued-for (absence of political
relations e.g., in ‘primitive’ societies without a
state?); (ii) but even if it were the case that the
2-level analysis of the political level were
absurd, it would not follow that such an analysis
of the ideological level would be.

Another objection which Ranciere puts forward
has to do with Althusser’s supposed derivation of
his general theory of ideology from a theory of the
‘social tetality in general’. The cohesion of the
latter is supposed by Althusser to be ensured by
the function of ideology – supplying the system of
representations which allow the agents of the social
totality to accomplish the tasks determined by this
structure’. Ranciere’s claim is that such a
‘theory of the social totality in general’ is no
part of Marxism, and in Althusser represents an
importation of the problematic of classical sociology (Comte, Durkheim). Now, there may be something in this criticism, but Ranciere doesn’t fully
demonstrate his point – (i) You don’t need a
‘theory of the social totality in general’ (irrespective of whether Althusser tries to develop one)
in order to argue that there is an ideological
level in all modes of production and that this
leve~ has certain universal characteristics.

a conception of the ideological level would be
extremely abstract and contain few ‘determinations’,
but, in the worQs of the Introduction to the
Grundrisse, could still be a ‘rational abstraction’

(Marx certainly thought that a concept of ‘production in general’ had a place in Marxist theory, and

many of the concepts of the 1859 Preface are clearly
intended to be trans-historical in this sense.

Indeed it is a condition of Marxism’s being a
theory of history (as distinct from a theory of a
particular mode of production) that some of its
concepts do have this generality).

(ii) Ranciere
seems to imply that simply to talk of ‘social
cohesion’ is to enter the terrain of the bourgeois
sociologists. This, I think, is incorrect. That
all social formations have some type of unity produced by the various mechanisms for the reproduction of the social relations which constitute
them – is a Marxist thesis; but at least in the
case of class societies this unity is ‘contradictory unity’.

It is here that Althusser’s error

In class societies it is not ‘ideology as
such’ but the dominant ideology (= the ideology of
the ruling class) which provides agents with
representations which allow them to perform the
‘tasks allocated to them by the structures’.

Althusser identifies ‘ideology’ with ‘dominant
ideology’ and so (Ranciere is quite correct in his
identification of the political effects of this)
denies the capacity of the dominated class(es) to
produce its (their) own ideology and so denies it
(them) the right to independent class initiatives.

But Ranciere is too modest here – he is attacking
the whole orthodox tradition of reading Lenin on
this, based on the reading of what is to be Done?

(a tradition which is uncritical of that text
itself, and ‘forgets’ that Lenin’s thought on the
question of ‘spontaneity’ was not somehow ossified
in 1903).

(iii) On the question of the persistence of
ideology under communism, it certainly seems to me
that Althusser is correct in his choice of target the ideologies of ‘de-alienation’ and ‘transparency’

– and also that Ranciere produces no more than a
gesture by way of countering these’ ‘positions: the
analogy with the ‘withering away of the state’.

But the trouble with this is that certain functions
of the state – central coordination/supervision/
administration – are held by orthodox Marxists to
be retained under communism. The state ‘withers
away’ strictly in the sense that the aspect of its
functioning as a ‘machine of class domination’ can
no longer, by definition, be performed in a classless society. Here, I think, we can return to
Ranciere’s point about the 2-1evel analysis of
ideology in Althusser. From what I just said
about the functions of the state, a 2-level
analysis of the state could be derived – (i)
universal/general function – coordination/administration etc. (ii) in class societies, overdetermined
by function of class domination.

The way out of this is precisely through the
point made by Ranciere about the distinction
between the technical and the social division of
labour. These are aspects of one and the same
division of labour.

Similarly, in so far as the
state in class society administers, coordinates,
supervises production it is simultaneously and
ipso facto operating as a means of class domination.

Similarly with the dominant ideology: as
it – through its variant forms – provides ‘agents
with representations necessary … etc, it ipso
facto serves class rule by distorting/denying
class relations. On this basis it can be argued
that under communism ‘systems of representations’

will still relate agents to their ‘real conditions
of existence’ though it is a tendentious question
whether or not such representations are correctly”
described as ‘ideology’. As to the cognitive
aspect of these ‘presentations’, they clearly would
not constitute scientific knowledge (though they
might incorporate elements of such), neither would
they be reflections of a ‘transparent’ social
reality. Equally, however, they would not suffer


from the various forms of distortion/concealment
present in dominant ideologies of class societies.

In this respect, Ranciere is quite correct in
rejecting his own earlier analysis of fetishism:

the ideological forms analysed by Marx here ‘arise
from’ market relations and ‘conceal’ specifically
capitalist production relation.

The attempt to show the adverse political effects
of the science/ideology couple in the article
‘Problemes Etudiants’. The argument here is that
the science/ideology couple (science as universally
revolutionary; ideology = ruling ideology) combines
with the revisionist treatment of the technical/
social division of labour distinction to yield the
line of class-division in education as between
transmission of knowledge (science) and transmission of ideology, and not to locate it in the
teacher/taught relation itself, this latter relationlbeing a technical division of Labour in the
case of the transmission of scientific knowledge.

Thus it’s the ‘spontaneous discourse of meta-physics’ (Althusser’s science/ideology distinction)
which enables Althusser to ‘recognise his own
class position’ (defence of ‘academic authority’)
in that expressed by revisionism (the class
position of the labour aristocracy and ‘the
cadres’ ) .

(i) Ranciere’ s argument concerning the
revisionist treatment of the technical/social
division of labour distinction is, I think,
entirely correct: i.e. these are two ‘aspects’ of
one and the same division of labour. (ii) On the
science/ideology distinction the situation is far
more complex. Certainly Ranciere is correct to
a.ssert the existence of the class-struggle in
r~eology and the capacity of dominated class(es)
to produce their own ideologies. He is also
correct to argue against Althusser that the
ideology of a class is not ‘simply … expressed
in such or such a content of knowledge’ – but is
to be found ‘in the division between disciplines,
the examination system, the organisation of
departments – everything which embodies the
bourgeois hierarchy of knowledge.’

himself recognises this later on, in ‘Ideology
and the state Apparatuses’).

But Ranciere is incorrect in reducing science
to the status of one element within a system of
ideological dominance: ‘Knowledge is a system in
which the ‘contents’ cannot be conceived outside
their forms of appropriation (acquisition, transmission, control, utilisation). The system is that
of the ideological domination of a class’. The
political implication which Ranciere draws from
this reduction is: ‘The task of revolutionaries is
not to confront them [i.e. disciplines which spread
bourgeois ideology] with the requirements of
scientificity, nor to appeal from these pseudosciences to the ideal scientificity of mathematics
or physics. It is to oppose bourgeois ideologies
with the proletarian ideology of Marxism-Leninism’

[my parentheRis].

This reduction of Marxism-Leninism to an ideology in opposition to ‘bourgeois ideology’, together
with the refusal to apply epistemological criteria
to the ‘knowledge’ of the bourgeoisie is a concession to relativism and therefore a-rationalism.

There is no need to insist on the appeal to maths
or physics, but Marxism- Leninism has always proclaimed its cognitive superiority over bourgeois
forms of social knowledge. In my view this claim
is well founded and its truth is politically indispensible for the success of the workers’ movement (cf Lenin’s ‘Without revolutionary theory,
no revolutionary movement’.)
It is absolutely necessary that revolutionaries
do confront bourgeois ideology with ‘criteria of
scientificity’ both as an instrument of general
ideological struggle inside and outside the educational system and in theoretical debate within the
revolutionary movement (witness the current popu-


larity of left-glosses of interpretive sociology
among sections of the left). This doesn’t necessarily imply ‘opposing a bourgeois academic discourse
with a Marxist academic discourse’. Ranciere is,
I’m arguing, correct to speak of proletarian
ideology, and to claim that the ideology of a class
is not essentially ‘contained’ in, or ‘transmitted
by’ a set of theoretical ‘contents’. It follows
that ideological struggle cannot be limited to the
question of ‘contents’ or ‘epistemological status’

but it doesn’t follow that this will not be a
necessary aspect of ideological struggle. This
will also include, of course, challenges to
established disciplinary divisions, the authority
relations of the school or college, the assessment
system, teaching methods etc. The struggle for a
recognised B.A. (Hons.) degree in Marxism-Leninism
is absurd, but a struggle-for more ‘progressive’

and ‘enlightened’ ways of teaching bourgeois
‘contents’ is positively politically dangerous,
precisely because its absurdity is not so patent
as that of a B.A. in Leninism.

Ranciere even seems to go back on his own relativist and reductionist treatment of ‘science’

later in his essay: ‘But if science itself at the
level of its proofs cannot be bourgeois or proletarian … ‘ What can this mean other than that
‘contents’ can be ‘conceived outside their forms
of appropriation’?

That such a separation can be achieved is a
presupposition of any adequate history of the
sciences – consider, for instance, the different
ideological currents and social relationships
with which Darwin’s theory of evolution has been
articulated: the classical ‘laissez-faire’

liberalism of late victorian England, the petitbourgeois radicalism of sections of the German
intelligentsia (Haeckel), the reformist socialism
of Wallace in England and the Leninism of Lenin
himself [what the Friends of the People are •.• ].

On the question of proletarian ideology I could
not improve upon Ranciere’s own remarks towards the
end of the 1973 Foreword, but what he say~ about
the effects of revisionism in that passage are not
grounds for denying the role of the scientific
theory of Marxism-Leninism. Proletarian ideology
is not equivalent to Marxism-Leni~ism. MarxismLeninism is a scientific theory articulated within
proletarian ideology (concepts, attitudes, relationships, partial conquests, etc.~_
It’s al~o the case that various elements within
proletarian ideology form raw-materials in the
production of scientific knowledge, but by no
means all of the elements in the production of
Marxism have been drawn from this source (cf.

Lenin’s 3 Sources and 3 Component Parts of

Finally, on the question of the ‘revolutionary’

character of all science. There is something in
this. All new sciences are founded on the basis
of a rupture with previous ideologies. In so far
as this rupture is with elements of a ruling
ideology, then the foundation of a new s’cience
always represents a political threat to a ruling
class. Its response may be to incorporate -elements
of the new science with articulation of its own
ideology, or suppress it (or both). All major
theoretical innovations in the sciences have met
with one or other of these responses on the part
of existing ruling classes. Equally, new sciences
have tended to become articulated with, or form
the sources of, revolutionary ideologies.

There are other things in Ranciere’s paper that
ought to be taken up (e.g. the assumption of the
‘restoration of capitalism’ thesis in the discussion of humanism, and the implication that the
‘labour aristocracy and cadres’ constitute a
class!) but perhaps some other time ….

Ted BenlOn


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