Political ideologies are systems of ideas that shape people’s thoughts and actions with regard to many things, including nationality, race, the role and function of government, property and class divisions, the relations between men and women, human responsibility for the natural environment, and more. These systems of ideas have proven to be potent, and often lethal, political forces. As the historian Isaiah Berlin observed in his 1992 book The Crooked Timber of Humanity, “the great ideological storms” of the twentieth century “have altered the lives of virtually all mankind,” producing not only revolutions but “totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left and . . . explosions of nationalism, racism, and, in places, of religious bigotry. . . .These great movements began with ideas in people’s heads: ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be, and should be; and . . . [these ideas were] transformed in the name of a vision of some supreme goal in the minds of the leaders, above all of the prophets with armies at their backs” (p. 1).
Not all political ideologies have spawned totalitarian tyrannies—not conservatism, for example, nor the liberalism that Berlin himself embraced. But there is no doubt that the “armed prophets” to whom he referred—Vladimir Illich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and many others—left the landscape of the twentieth century littered with millions of corpses. Nor is there any reason to think that the apparent demise of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism in the last century signaled the end of ideologies. On the contrary, the twenty-first century already bears the stamp of new and continuing ideologies: of militant nationalists bent on ethnic cleansing, of radical Islamists dedicated to suicide bombing and other forms of terrorism, and of white racists and black Afrocentrists, gay liberationists and “traditional-values” conservatives, feminists and antifeminists, and many others engaged in culture wars. Political ideologies are potent and persistent, in short, and well worth understanding. Such an understanding begins with the history of the concept.
The History of Ideology
The word ideologie was coined by Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836), who hoped to found a systematic study of the origins of ideas in the revolutionary decade of the 1790s. Like many other French philosophers of the eighteenth century, de Tracy drew on the ideas of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke had argued that the mind is like a tabula rasa, or blank slate, in that people are born with no knowledge or ideas; everything we know and every idea we have is thus the result of sense experience. de Tracy took this claim about the nature of knowledge as the starting point for his own science of ideas, or ideologie.
As de Tracy conceived it, however, this science was to serve the revolutionary purpose of remaking society. If ideas are the result of experience, he reasoned, it must be possible to discover their sources and explain how people come to have the ideas that they have—including the false and misleading ideas that stand in the way of freedom and progress. Among these were religious ideas, which he regarded as mere superstitions. With the aid of the new science of ideologie, however, de Tracy thought it would be possible not only to remove these and other misleading ideas from people’s minds but to replace them with ideas that would lead to a rational and happy society. From the beginning, then, the concept of ideology has been associated with the attempt to shape how people think to move them to act in certain ways.
Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church, the nobility, and powerful political elites viewed ideologie and the “ideologues,” as de Tracy’s followers were called, with alarm. With its emphasis on rationality and science, ideologie posed a threat to traditional authority in politics and society as in religion. In conservative circles, the word ideologie quickly acquired negative connotations as something false, seductive, and dangerous. But it was Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) who quashed de Tracy’s attempt to found a reforming science of ideas. Once a supporter of the ideologues, Napoleon changed positions in the early 1800s when, as self-proclaimed emperor of France, he needed the support of the church and the nobility. Denouncing ideologie as “sinister metaphysics,” he declared the new science to be nothing but a mask to cover the subversive plans of his opponents and critics.
This sense of ideology as hiding or masking something is also evident in the way that Karl Marx (1818–1883) used the concept some forty years later. In Marx’s hands, however, ideology referred to a set or system of ideas that served to justify and legitimize the rule of a dominant social class. As Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) argued in The German Ideology, the task of the revolutionary philosopher is to unmask and expose “the illusion of the epoch”—an illusion shared by rulers and ruled alike but working to the advantage of the rulers at the expense of those they ruled. Once the class or classes at the bottom of society begin to see that the ruling class has no legitimate claim to its dominant position—that is, once the oppressed people see through the ideology that supports their oppressors—then revolution becomes a real possibility.
Marx’s conception of ideology was not politically neutral. It was, as he acknowledged, a “weapon” in the “class struggle.” But Marx thought it was a particularly powerful weapon because it revealed that the prevailing ways of thinking about social relations throughout history were merely complex and subtle defenses of the power and privileges of the dominant classes. Yet his own theory, he maintained, was not biased or ideological in this way, but “scientific.” The theory did promote the interests of the oppressed and exploited, but Marx held that the interests of the exploited class in his day, the proletariat, were the interests of all humanity. To expose “the illusion of the epoch” as mere ideology thus was to speak the truth in a way that opened the possibility of a classless society in which ideology and illusion will disappear.
For Marx, then, as for Napoleon, ideology was a pejorative term. But this negative connotation began to shift when Karl Mannheim (1893–1947) and others pointed out that Marx’s use of ideology as a weapon against the dominant class could be turned against Marx’s theory. For if Marx is right when he says that the ruling ideas of society serve to justify the dominance of the ruling class, is it not also likely that the ideas of other social classes arise out of their interests and aspirations? What people think—not just the ruling class but everyone— may depend on their social positions. In his Ideology and Utopia (1929), Mannheim called for a “sociology of knowledge” to trace the social origins of ideas and beliefs.
According to Mannheim, the sociology of knowledge requires us to distinguish between the “particular” and “total” conceptions of ideology. To accuse one’s political opponents of being ideological, for example, is to employ the particular conception, as the use of ideological implies that their views are biased, distorted, and serve some hidden interest. Total conception, by contrast, refers to the characteristic ways of thinking of an entire class, society, or historical period, such as medieval society or modernity. Because these ways of thought are so broad and encompassing, Mannheim doubted that anyone could ever stand outside them, entirely free from the web of social and economic interests, and thus be in a position to unmask the ideological sources of all ideas and beliefs. In this way he raised the disturbing possibility that all our thinking about society and social relations is ideological. Mannheim did believe that intellectuals may be able to achieve a synthesis of opposing perspectives that comes closer to the whole truth, but even then it would be the truth of a specific historical time and place.
By raising the possibility that all social thought is ideological, Mannheim implied that there is no purely scientific or objective understanding of social arrangements. In doing so, however, he stretched the idea of ideology to mean something like a system of beliefs about the social world, or a Weltanschauung (worldview). He may also have made it harder to determine just what an ideology is. Indeed, some twentieth century social scientists concluded that the term is too vague and contested to be useful for political science scholarly analysis. One counted twenty-seven definitional elements of ideology, for example, and others urged that a less confusing and loaded term, such as belief system, should supplant ideology.
As its continuing use attests, ideology has proved too important and powerful a word to be abandoned or replaced. Yet it continues to be the source of disagreement. To many, ideology remains a pejorative term. In their view, ideologies are bad because they always simplify and distort matters. Worse yet, ideologues use emotion-rousing slogans and simplistic analyses to persuade people that their ideology has a monopoly on the truth. Anyone who disagrees must be an enemy of truth, justice, and progress— an enemy who must be either converted or defeated. As Daniel Bell says in his 1961 book The End of Ideology (pp. 399–400), “Ideology makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues on their individual merits. One simply turns to the ideological vending machine, and out comes the prepared formulae. And when these beliefs are suffused by apocalyptic fervor, ideas become weapons, and with dreadful results.”
In contrast to this negative view, many people now use ideology in a neutral fashion. For example, it is not unusual to find a candidate for political office distinguishing his or her ideology from that of an opponent. In such cases, ideology means a more or less consistent set of ideas, beliefs, and convictions about how the social world does and should operate. The candidate is likely to claim that his or her ideology is right, good, or somehow superior to the opponent’s, but this claim can be made only when people believe that an ideology is not necessarily a bad thing. If it were, it would be foolish to admit that one is acting on the basis of an ideology.
Despite their differences, the negative and the neutral conceptions of ideology have at least two points in common. First, both conceptions depart from de Tracy’s original understanding of ideologie as the scientific study of ideas, and second, both join de Tracy in using ideology to refer to a set of ideas that tries to link thought to action. That is, in both conceptions ideologies attempt to shape how people think—and therefore how they act.
A Provisional Definition of Ideology
These points of agreement suggest a definition of ideology that provides a useful basis for identifying, comparing, and contrasting various ideologies. According to this definition, an ideology is a more or less coherent and comprehensive set of ideas that explains and evaluates social conditions, helps people understand their place in society, and provides a program for social and political action. In other words, an ideology performs four functions for people who hold it: the explanatory, evaluative, orientative, and programmatic functions.
Explanation. An ideology explains why social, political, and economic conditions are as they are, particularly in times of crisis. Why are there wars? Why do depressions occur? Why are some people rich and others poor? Why are relations between races so often strained and difficult? To these and many other questions each ideology supplies—or at least hints at—its own answers. A Marxist might explain wars as an outgrowth of capitalists’ competition for foreign markets, for instance, while a Fascist is apt to explain them as tests of one nation’s will against another’s. Their explanations are sometimes quite different, as these examples indicate, but all ideologies offer a way of looking at complex events and conditions that tries to make sense of them. Moreover, those who are firmly committed to a particular ideology—ideologues—typically will offer simple or even simplistic explanations as they try to convert as many people as possible to their side.
Evaluation. The second function of ideologies is to supply standards for evaluating social conditions. Are all wars evils to be avoided, or are some morally justifiable? Are depressions a normal part of the business cycle or a symptom of a sick economic system? Are vast disparities of wealth desirable or undesirable? Are racial tensions inevitable or avoidable? Again, an ideology supplies its followers with the criteria required for answering these and similar questions. Those who adhere to one ideology may evaluate favorably something that the followers of a different one greatly dislike—communists look at class struggle as a necessary step on the way to communism, for example, while Fascists regard it as an outright evil. Whatever the position may be, however, all ideologies provide standards or cues that help people assess, judge, and appraise social policies and conditions.
Orientation. Ideologies also supply their adherents with an orientation and a sense of identity—of who the individual is, the group (race, nation, gender, class, and so on) to which he or she belongs, and how he or she is related to the rest of the world. Like a compass, ideologies help people to locate themselves in a complicated world. Communists stress the importance of social-economic classes, for example, with the working class being the victim of exploitation by its capitalist oppressors; Nazis think that racial identity is all important; and feminists maintain that one’s gender is fundamental to personal and political identity in a world marked by sexual oppression and exploitation. Other ideologies lead their adherents to perceive their social situation or position in still other ways, but all perform the function of orientation.
Political program. Finally, an ideology performs a programmatic or prescriptive function by setting out a general program of social and political action. The Russian Marxist Vladimir Illich Lenin (1870–1924) made this point in the title of one of his revolutionary tracts, What Is To Be Done? As he saw it, part of the answer is that the Communist Party must take the lead in seizing state power, overthrowing capitalism, and eventually creating a cooperative, communist society. Other ideologies, of course, advance very different programs: Nazis try to rouse the master race to take action against Jews and other supposedly inferior peoples, libertarians advocate policies that will reduce or eliminate government interference in the free market, and a social or religious conservative will call for the state or government to promote morality or traditional values.
In addition to providing a useful way to compare and contrast ideologies, this functional definition helps to clarify what an ideology is by eliminating possibilities that do not perform all four functions. Thus, it enables us to distinguish political ideologies from some of the other isms, such as terrorism, that are sometimes mistaken for ideologies. Terrorism may offer a program for social and political action, but it does not explain and evaluate conditions or provide people with an orientation. It is a strategy that some ideologues use to try to advance their causes, but terrorism is not itself an ideology.
The functional definition also helps to distinguish democracy from political ideologies. Unlike socialism, conservatism, and the other ideologies, democracy offers no explanation of why things are the way they are, and it is only in a loose sense that we can say that democracy performs the evaluative, orientative, or programmatic functions. Moreover, most political ideologies claim to be democratic—Fascism, Nazism, and radical Islamism are the notable exceptions—and they could hardly make this claim if democracy were an ideology itself. One can easily claim to be a conservative democrat, a liberal democrat, or a social(ist) democrat, for instance, but not so easily claim to be a socialist conservative, say, or a liberal Fascist.
Human Nature and Political Ideologies
Ideologies also harbor, at least implicitly, some conception of human nature—of basic human drives, motivations, limitations, and possibilities. Some ideologies assume that it is the nature of human beings to compete with one another in hopes of acquiring the greatest possible share of scarce resources; others hold that people are naturally inclined to cooperate with and share what they have with others. So, for example, a classical liberal or contemporary libertarian is likely to believe that humans are naturally competitive and acquisitive. A socialist, however, will hold that competitiveness and acquisitiveness are unnatural vices nurtured by a deformed and deforming capitalist system that warps people whose true nature is to be cooperative and generous.
These and other conceptions of human nature are important to the understanding of political ideologies because they play a large part in determining how each ideology performs the four aforementioned functions. They are especially important because each ideology’s view of human nature sets limits on what it considers to be politically possible. This connection is particularly evident in the stance ideologies take toward revolutionary change. The fact that most ideologies have played a revolutionary part in modern politics at one time or another, beginning with liberalism in the French Revolution (1789– 1799)—if not sooner—suggests that most ideologies have a fairly optimistic view of what people are capable of accomplishing. After all, people will not undertake anything so radical and uncertain as a revolution unless they believe it possible to bring about a fundamental change for the better in society. Conversely, the connection between ideologies and conceptions of human nature also explains why conservatives tend to be suspicious of or downright hostile toward revolutions, for their estimate of human nature generally leads them to believe that sweeping improvements in society are either impossible or unlikely and certainly dangerous to attempt.
Core assumptions about human nature have led most ideologies, at one time or another, to call for revolution, for slow or rapid reform, for a rigid defense of the status quo, or even (in the case of reactionaries) for a return to the way things used to be. In any case, ideas—especially those systems of ideas called ideologies—clearly have consequences. These consequences, whether intended or not, are sometimes benign and sometimes dire.
- Bell, Daniel. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. First published 1961.
- Berlin, Isaiah. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. New York:Vintage, 1992.
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- Converse, Philip. “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” In Ideology and Discontent, edited by D. Apter. New York: Free Press, 1964.
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- Lichtheim, George. The Concept of Ideology, and Other Essays. New York: Random House, 1967.
- Mannheim, Karl. Ideology and Utopia. Translated by L.Wirth and E. Shils. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1936. First published 1929.
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