Film and ideology

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 17, April 1978, pp. 14-16
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

"It is clear that the arm of criticism cannot replace the criticism of arms. Material force can only be overthrown by material force; but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses." — Karl Marx

"Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice."
— Karl Marx

I've found the concept of ideology useful in my work with commercial films, but I have also found it difficult to explain in simple terms from a Marxist perspective. I want here to present an introduction to the concept, even at the risk of distortion by oversimplification. I hope to provide a starting point for further study, and begin a discussion of ideology per se in JUMP CUT. [1] I begin with a working definition of ideology, then quote a key passage by Marx which brings up the basic issues. After I discuss these issues, I briefly put the following articles in the context of the discussion.

Ideology is a relatively systematic body of ideas, attitudes, values, and perceptions, as well as, actual modes of thinking (usually unconscious) typical of a given class or group of people in a specific time and place. An example is ruling class ideology in the USA today, often called bourgeois ideology (It is important to point out that ruling class ideology and its manifestations differ from country to country.). I must add four significant qualifications to this definition.

First, Marx and Engels always considered the state, politics, education, religion, the law and other activities not directly a part of material production to be ideological forms or manifestations of ideology. Saying this raises a question about the relation between these various ideological forms, say, education, for example, and ideology per se. Does our education system embody, manifest, reflect, express, disseminate, or use ruling class ideology? These verbs describe a scale from a passive relation to an active one. Unless we are to dismiss this question as a linguistic trap, we have to answer yes all the way around. Schools use bourgeois ideology to keep order — if students don't do well they will "fail" in our competitive society. At the same time schools overtly teach bourgeois ideology, for example the righteousness of the free enterprise system. However, if we examine schools carefully, we can also see how they covertly reflect and embody bourgeois values, for example, sexism and racism.

Second, ruling class ideology tends to dominate in any given society although it never does so completely. For example, a significant number of Americans today reject the idea that big business is in their interests. Also, while schools present a complete indoctrination in ruling class ideology, blatantly in classes on our political and economic system, less blatantly in the ways it encourages competition, individualism, and sexism, many people end up rejecting all or part of that indoctrination.

Third, ideology presents an incomplete, inaccurate, distorted understanding of social reality for two main reasons. Ideology represents the interests and views of only one class although often presenting them as universally true and valid. For example, the educational system clearly discriminates against all but those with money and power. While claiming to offer "equal opportunity" to all, the system provides inferior education to minorities, women, and the poor. In addition to representing class interests, ideology depends for its clarity on the corresponding clarity of the social relations extant in the society.

By social relations I mean the way in which a society organizes itself to produce, divide up, and use a surplus of goods beyond what's needed for subsistence. Have people divided themselves into extended families, tribes, classes? Who owns the land, the tools, and the other resources? Who does the work and how are they rewarded for it? The important question is, then, how clear are these relations. Under capitalism they are not clear at all. For example, while social mobility, getting ahead by hard work, personal responsibility for one's place in society, are all important ideas in bourgeois ideology, a hope held out to all, capitalism depends upon a large work force with no other way to earn a living than to work for the capitalist class. Since only a few can be a capitalist or make themselves independent under capitalism, social mobility, getting ahead, is not a significant reality for most people.

Fourth, although we can talk about ruling class ideology in general, each specific expression of it — ideas, the legal system, the state, movies, ethnic group ideology — is mediated. By mediated I mean that between the general ideology and its expression comes individual and group thoughts, experiences, creativity, needs, and so forth. For example, Hollywood films generally convey bourgeois ideology, but not solely or purely. Directors, actors and actresses, writers, the needs of audiences at a given moment all mediate between an aspect of the general ideology — say individualism — and a film, such as GODFATHER II. The dynamic and the appeal of this film lie partially in the tension between extreme individualism, represented by Michael, and Italian ethnic cohesiveness, represented by the family. The appeal of many American films lies in their attacks on certain aspects of bourgeois ideology and life.

In this sense, many Hollywood films have progressive elements, which arise from contradictions between aspects of bourgeois ideology (individualism and ideas about the family) and between bourgeois ideology and life under capitalism.

The following quote from Marx's "Preface to A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy," [1] one of his most famous statements, raises the crucial issues about ideology. I will draw out and discuss these issues.

"In the social production of their existence, people inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of people that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines, their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution." [2]

For Marx and Engels, the first fact of human existence is the production of the necessities of life: food, clothing, and shelter. In order to accomplish this production, people enter into social relations "which are independent of their will." Since history does not stop, we don't get a chance to sit down and figure this all out ahead of time. It takes place over long periods of time; for example, it took capitalist relations hundreds of years to develop in Europe.

These relations of production — the way a society organizes itself to produce its needs — which people enter into (or better, find themselves in) are independent of their will because each of them is born into a given situation, into a specific family, class, ethnic group, time and place. None of us can choose these things. Before we even have the capacity to make independent decisions, our family, schools, churches, and other formal institutions have contributed greatly to our socialization, have indoctrinated us in bourgeois ideology.

Marx's assertion that an ideological "superstructure" arises upon "the economic structure of society" has become very controversial. Because Marx uses words like "structure" and talks of "arising on a foundation," many have visualized the relationship between base and superstructure as one between the basement or foundation of a house and the upper floors. In some mechanical applications of these concepts, such an image is, in fact, asserted as what Marx intended. Marx's own phrasing, some sloppy reading, and especially dogmatic and mechanical applications of these concepts have led many who otherwise consider themselves Marxists to reject this way of conceiving the relationship as rigidly determinist.

According to this rejection, Marx here asserts that only economic life or activity constitutes reality while ideas, consciousness, the law, or politics are all figments of people's imagination, having no reality or importance. I too would find the image of a house with economics in the basement, politics and the state on the first floor, law and religion on the second, and art perched precariously on the roof silly and incorrect. But it seems very clear to me that this is not at all what Marx intended or said.

To begin with the economic base includes the "totality of these relations or productions." The capitalists own the means of production (tools, raw materials, land, factories) and the workers receive a wage for their time on the job. The totality of economic life (production, distribution, exchange, and consumption) includes our conscious as well as our unconscious participation in it. As one commentator explains it,

"When Marx insists that being … is independent of the consciousness which reflects it, what he is getting at is not that human production occurs without thought, but that what happens in the world of production occurs independently of what people may happen to think is happening." [3]

The distinction is not between unconscious economic activity, on the one hand, and consciousness, on the other, but between our conscious activity in production and what we or anyone else thinks about that activity. Throughout history, the difficult thing has been to explain accurately human production. Few have even tried. The law, the state, religion, ideas, attitudes are the ideological forms in which people think about and try to change their conscious activity in production.

In the second part of the sentence I am discussing, Marx raises a second controversial point having to do with the relationship between base and superstructure. What does it mean to say that "definite forms of consciousness" correspond to the economic base? What is the nature of the correspondence between them? Here I must repeat what I said about historical time. Soon after the passage I've quoted, Marx says,

"The Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society."

He is talking about very broad segments of time, epochs, not a few years or decades. Marx does not say that every time unemployment changes or the stock market twitches, different movies or laws are made. He says rather that to each of the major modes of production "correspond definite forms of social consciousness."

To talk about film and ideology today creates a problem in that we have narrowed the scope considerably. We concern ourselves with the relation between a certain relatively short period of capitalism in one country and the ideology and film of the same time period. Perhaps because of the difficulty involved, the knowledge, new methodology, and precision needed, the relation between the style and content of films and 20th century capitalism remains virtually unexplored. [4] For the, most part in JUMP CUT writers have dealt with the relationship between films on the one hand, and superstructural phenomena, on the other: politics, racism, sexism, individualism. To go beyond this, we need to discuss the possible relation between the patterns of racism and sexism in the workplace as well as changes in the working class generally, and the way people are portrayed in films. What, for example, is the relation between BLUE COLLAR and ROCKY, and changes in patterns of racism in the working class and on the job?

Marx and Engels clearly saw a reciprocal relationship between base and superstructure. It's important to point out that Marxists understand things to be integrated structures, to be functioning wholes. However one understands the relationship between base and superstructure, we must realize that they are an integrated whole and cannot be separated. In later life, Engels felt compelled to defend Marx's view against the mechanical interpretations and applications by some younger Marxists as well as by opponents.

"The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, … especially the reflections of all those real struggles in the brains of the participants … also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular. There is an interaction of all these elements in which the economic movement is finally bound to assert itself." [5]

Marx explains (or better shows us where to look for) the relation between base and superstructure. The realm of production, he says, "conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life." Because ideology is unreliable, because it mystifies social relations, we must ask ourselves what conditions exist in the capitalist mode of production that contribute to this mystification of consciousness. Marx, in Capital and in many other writings, takes the analysis of capitalist production as his central topic, so I can only scratch the surface here. Class rule, division of labor, alienation, and fetishism constitute the four main, completely interrelated, aspects of this mystification. In bourgeois society, ideology functions primarily to reinforce these aspects of capitalism and to disguise as natural, inevitable, and even as people's own fault capitalism's devastating effects on people.


"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force." [6]

The ruling class controls the "means of mental production" — they control the media, the schools, etc., and can hire ideologists to operate them. Thus, few Americans actually come in contact with left views on a regular basis. And when left ideas appear in the dominant media, they are usually ridiculed or grossly distorted. This does not mean that bourgeois ideology consists of false ideas about the world foisted on an unsuspecting people by a ruling class who knows they are false. Not at all. The ruling class believes and fights for its ideas. And the ruling class has the power and ability "to represent its interests as the common interest of all the members of society, … as the only rational, universally valid ones." [7]

Other classes accept ruling class ideas to the extent they seem to make sense of social reality and help people live in our culture. In this sense an idea, such as extreme individualism, "works" in a bourgeois society — for some it works well, even though in the long run it doesn't solve the most pressing personal and social needs. "Dog eat dog" has some validity in a competitive society, but works well only for a few top dogs. But notice, too, what is hidden or omitted by such individualism — the idea that people could rise together as a class. Ideology is not simply the expression of some ideas; it is also the repression or omission of others. Thus it works overtly and covertly.


"For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each person has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him/her and from which he/she cannot escape. A person is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critic, and must remain so if he/she does not want to lose his/her means of livelihood." [8]

The existence of social classes already implies a division of labor between ordering and doing. Furthermore, fixing people into exclusive areas of activity, and Marx includes sex roles here, narrows them, lets them experience only a small portion of social activity, inhibits their ability to grasp the totality of the system. The status of various positions and roles attaches to the people who are forced into them. White-collar work usually has higher status than blue collar, for example. Division of labor touches all aspects of life: the boring routine detail work in factory, office, and home, the isolated academic department, the split between filmmakers and film critics.

The division of labor between mental and manual work tends to strip most workers of any mental activity at all. [9] Meanwhile intellectuals often remain very distant, often purposely above the day-to-day life of ordinary people. They often appear to think that their ideas have a life of their own beyond the need for any political practice. [10]


To be alienated means to be estranged, separated from, deprived of something. Marx lays out four ways workers are alienated under capitalism. They do not own the means of production (factories, land, machines, raw materials); they have no say over their work and often don't see enough of the whole process to understand it; they do not deal collectively with one another but individually with an employer; and they compete with each other. For these reasons, workers are alienated from the product of their labor, from the activity itself, and from each other. Because, for Marx, productive activity, the way we produce the necessities of life, is the key to human existence (as opposed to animal existence), alienation from this whole process means that we are not fully human — we are alienated from our very humanness.

On the one hand, bourgeois ideology presents an elaborate defense of these relations of production, of private property, individualism, competition, free enterprise, the naturalness and inevitability of capitalism, usually blaming the kind of behavior that results from alienation (the basic content of many news programs — crime, violence, and addiction) on the victims. On the other hand, the dehumanization of people under capitalism makes if very difficult for them to grasp and fight the system that oppresses them. Born into an alienated society, we tend to see it as inevitable, the way things are.


When we agree with the capitalists that machines demand certain things of workers, that money earns interest, that workers enter into a fair contract with capitalists, we are giving our own creations (machines) the power to dominate us and we are taking parts of things (the actual contract between capital and labor) and abstractions (the relation between money and interest) for the whole thing. This is how fetishism works. Marx drew the concept of fetishism from the analysis of religion by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Fetishism endows gods, the creations of the human mind, with power to effect and even dominate our lives. [11]

We have created machines, even industry itself, yet we talk about their needs, their demands on us, without realizing that it is within our power to make them conform to our needs. If we believe that the capitalists and the workers bargain in equality, it is only because we have failed to fully examine the relation between them. As the current coal strike shows, the ruling class is willing to use massive armed force to make people work for them on their terms. Their use of this force against workers has a long history. Is this kind of effort made to ensure that mines are safe? Only the united force of most working people can equal that of the capitalists.

So far in the passage we are examining Marx has pointed out those aspects of historical development which most rigidly determine (determine means "place limits on" not "cause") human activity and consciousness. But history is not static. Conflicts and contradictions are an important part of its very existence and dynamic. At first, in the development of a given mode of production, the newly developing relations of production greatly liberate productive forces. Capitalism, bringing the industrial revolution in its wake, had this liberating effect in 18th and 19th century Europe. However, once these relations' liberating capacity had spent itself, they became a hindrance to production. The fact that the government pays farmers not to produce, that every year farmers destroy produce, milk, even animals in order to keep the price up, that factories rarely if ever produce near capacity and often stand idle, that only massive arms manufacturing and sales abroad keep our economy afloat at all — these wasteful aspects of capitalist productionn show how production for profit fetters productive as well as human development in our society today.

As long as there are conflicting classes, as long as some people exploit others, as long as there is a social division of labor, as long as alienation and fetishism exist, society will be riddled with contradictions, which will continually lead to eras of social revolution. At the very basis of capitalism is the contradiction between the working class, which needs the highest possible wages to sustain itself and provide some security, and the capitalist class, which sees these wages as costs to be kept as low as possible. As a result of the contradictions between the working class and the capitalist class, there is class struggle, not just over wages, where it most obviously manifests itself, but for control of society itself.

The existence of this class struggle implies a number of important things about ideology. First, we cannot see ideology as total, as completely dominating people. Clearly, the more intense class struggle becomes, the less the working class accepts bourgeois ideology. In France and Italy millions of workers have joined parties dedicated to overthrowing capitalism and instituting socialism of some kind. If workers were totally dominated by bourgeois ideology, there would be no unions, strikes, or revolutions. Class struggle takes place in all areas of life: for example, in the struggles for better schools, health care, housing, and jobs; and in struggles against racism and sexism. Marx, just after the passage I have quoted, refers to the "ideological forms in which people become conscious of this conflict and fight it out." And the struggle against bourgeois ideology is the struggle to provide people, in whatever area of life they are active, with the tools to analyze more clearly the world around them so that they can change it. As part of that struggle, we must come to understand as clearly as we can where ideology comes from, how it functions in society, how people respond to it, and how to combat it. This effort unites these articles and much of the work in JUMP CUT.

In his article James Linton discusses what he calls the "film-as-entertainment" ideology," and goes on to show how it — the use of fictional narrative and the establishment of identification in films — "protects the dominant ideology from serious examination while at the same time reinforcing its basic tenets." Michael Rosenthal, examines the relationship between ideology and the social and economic relations that Marx says determine it.

Discussing the specific case of the coming of sound and color, Edward Buscombe tries to work out the extent to which film economics and the needs of a dominant Hollywood ideology — realism — are responsible for these changes in film technology. Finally, Tom Powers examines a specific case of sexism in Howard Hawks' HIS GIRL FRIDAY, which many critics have long seen as a strong and positive women's film. His examination of the subtle sexism in the film will help us better analyze contemporary films.


I want to thank the other editors of JUMP CUT for their help in working on this introduction, and especially my close friend Sy Adler, whose wisdom and good sense have been a special help.

1. My reviews of GODFATHER II (JUMP CUT 7) and BORN TO KILL (JUMP CUT 10/11) dealt with issues of ideology. I would also recommend reading Chuck Kleinhans' "Contemporary Working Class Heroes," in JUMP CUT 2, our articles on JAWS in JUMP CUT 9 and 10/11, on violence against women in JUMP CUT 14, and the special sections on theory in JUMP CUT 12/13 and on gays in JUMP CUT 16. In fact, most articles and reviews in JUMP CUT deal with some aspect of ideology.

2. (NY: International Publ., 1970), p. 20. After examining the original German, I have decided to update the translations I use of Marx and Engels. They almost always use the word Mensch/Menschen, which means person/people, but is always translated as man/men. They would understand.

3. John Hoffman, Marxism and the Theory of Praxis (NY: International Publ., 1975), p. 111. I found this book an excellent discussion of the questions I am discussing although it has problems that cannot be overlooked.

4. Before he died, Charles Eckert was doing fine work in this area and was just beginning to get results. See "The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner's MARKED WOMAN," Film Quarterly, 27 (Winter 1973-74) and "Shirley Temple and The House of Rockefeller," JUMP CUT, No. 2 (1974).

5. Engels to Joseph Bloch, September 21, 1880, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1844-1895, 3rd rev. ed. (1955; Moscow: Progress Publ., 1975), p. 394.

6. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (NY: International Publ., 1970), p. 64.

7. Ibid., p. 65.

8. Ibid., p. 53.

9. Harry Braverman has written the best description and analysis of what the division of labor means in people's lives. See Labor and Monopoly Capital (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

10. See our editorial on theory and practice in JUMP CUT 10/11.

11. See Capital I, Chapter 1, Section 4, "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof."