Many later Western Marxists developed these ideas, although they have tended to ascribe more autonomy and importance to culture than classical Marxism did. Within the Marxian tradition, a more positive concept of ideology, developed by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), sees socialist ideology as a positive force for developing revolutionary consciousness and promoting socialist development (Lenin, 1987). For the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), the ruling intellectual and cultural forces of an era constitute a form of hegemony , or domination by ideas and cultural forms that induce consent to the rule of the leading groups in a society. Gramsci argued that the unity of prevailing groups is usually created through the state—for instance, the American revolution or the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century. The institutions of "civil society" also play a role in establishing hegemony. Civil society, according to Gramsci, includes the church, school, media, and other forms of popular culture. Civil society mediates between the private sphere of personal economic interests and the family and the public authority of the state, serving as the locus of what Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929) described as "the public sphere."

Gramsci defined ideology as the ruling ideas that constitute the "social cement" unifying and holding together the established social order. While Marxist cultural critics like Gyögy Lukács (1885–1971) tended to see ideology as a manipulative force that helps ensure the rule of the dominant class, Ernst Bloch (1885–1977) instead stressed the utopian dimensions of Western culture and the ways in which cultural texts encode yearnings for a better world and a transformed society. Bloch's hermeneutic approach to Western culture in books like The Principle of Hope (1986) sought out visions of a better life in cultural artifacts ranging from the texts of Homer and the Bible to modern advertising and department store displays. Bloch's utopian impulse challenged film and cultural studies to articulate how culture provides alternatives to the existing world and how images, ideas, and narratives can promote individual emancipation and social transformation.

Bloch developed a type of cultural theory and ideology critique that is quite different from Marxist models that presents ideology critique as a tool for demolishing bourgeois culture and ideology—in effect, conflating bourgeois culture and ideology. This model—found in critiques by Lenin and most Marxist-Leninists—interprets dominant ideology primarily as a process created through mystification, error, and domination. This is contrasted to scientific or Marxist critical theory, in which ideology critique demonstrates the errors, mystifications, and ruling class interest within ideological artifacts, which are then smashed and discarded by the heavy hammer of the ideology critic.

Bloch, however, was more sophisticated than those who simply denounced all ideology as false consciousness or stressed the positive features of socialist ideology. Rather, Bloch sees emancipatory-utopian elements in all living ideologies, and deceptive and illusory qualities as well. For Bloch, ideology is "Janus-faced," or two-sided: it contains errors, mystifications, and techniques of manipulation and domination, but it also contains a utopian residue or surplus that can be used to critique society and to advance progressive politics. Bloch also perceived ideology at work in many phenomena usually neglected by Marxist and other ideology critiques: daydreams, popular literature, architecture, department store displays, sports, clothing, and other artifacts of everyday life. He believed that ideology critique should examine everyday life, as well as political texts and positions and the manifestly political ideologies of films, television, and other forms of mass-mediated culture.

Drawing on Bloch, Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), and other neo-Marxist theorists, Fredric Jameson (b. 1934) has suggested that mass cultural texts often have utopian moments. He has proposed that radical cultural criticism should analyze both the social hopes and fantasies in film as well as the ideological ways in which fantasies are presented, conflicts are resolved, and potentially disruptive hopes and anxieties are managed (Jameson, 1979, 1981). In his reading of Jaws (1975), for instance, Jameson notes that the shark stands in for a variety of fears—uncontrolled organic nature threatening the artificial society; big business corrupting and endangering community; disruptive sexuality threatening the disintegration of the family and traditional values—that the film tries to contain through the reassuring defeat of evil by representatives of the current class structure. Yet Jaws also contains utopian images of family, male bonding, and adventure, as well as socially critical visions of capitalism articulating fears that unrestrained big business would inexorably destroy the environment and community.

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