A central feature of Marxist theory is the 'materialist' stance that social being determines consciousness. According to this stance, ideological positions are a function of class positions, and the dominant ideology in society is the ideology of its dominant class. This is in contrast to the 'idealist' stance that grants priority to consciousness (as in Hegelian philosophy). Marxists differ with regard to this issue: some interpret the relationship between social being and consciousness as one of direct determination; others stress a dialectical relationship.
In fundamentalist Marxism, ideology is 'false consciousness', which results from the emulation of the dominant ideology by those whose interests it does not reflect. From this perspective the mass media disseminate the dominant ideology: the values of the class which owns and controls the media. According to adherents of Marxist political economy the mass media conceal the economic basis of class struggle; 'ideology becomes the route through which struggle is obliterated rather than the site of struggle' (Curran et al. 1982: 26).
Althusser rejected the notion of false consciousness, stressing that ideology is the medium through which we experience the world (Curran et al. 1982: 24). Althusserian Marxism stresses the irreducibility and materiality of ideology: i.e., ideology is seen as a determining force in its own right. The ideological operation of the mass media in the West contributes to the reproduction of the capitalist system.
Another Marxist theorist of ideology, Valentin Volosinov, has been influential in British cultural studies. Volosinov argued that a theory of ideology which grants the purely abstract concept of consciousness an existence prior to the material forms in which it is organized could only be metaphysical. Ideological forms are not the product of consciousness but rather produce it. As Tony Bennett notes: 'Rather than being regarded as the product of forms of consciousness whose contours are determined elsewhere, in the economic sphere, the signifying systems which constitute the sphere of ideology are themselves viewed as the vehicles through which the consciousness of social agents is produced' (Bennett 1982: 51).
Clearly, Marxist theorists agree that the mass media has ideological power, but disagree as to its nature.