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Ideology has shaped the very sofa on which I sit.
The shortest dictionary definition of ideology has to be “visionary
theorizing”. Given, however, that “theory” is usually taken to mean something
like “constructing rational models of an observed phenomenon” – how can this
exercise be, at the same time, visionary?
Therein, of course, is the rub. Ideology is, on the one hand, a theoretical
ordering of observed reality; but it is, on the other, an active (indeed – activist)
ordering. It tells us what the world is like, but it also takes sides, by telling us
what is wrong with the world and how to fix it. Such an explanation is “visionary”
by virtue of the simple fact that it is situated in the future – the envisaged time
when the wrongs of the world will be put right.
But ideology is not simply fiction or wishful thinking. It must be rooted in
observable reality and this is hinted by the suffix –logy at the end, derived from
the Greek logos, meaning (among other things) “reason”.
This active, future-oriented nature of the concept is behind the classic
dictionary definition of ideology as “a set of beliefs, especially the political beliefs
on which people, parties, or countries base their actions”. Political means “things
relating to the wellbeing of the polis” (i.e. the political community); and so an
expanded definition of ideology would read something like: “a set of explanations
which outline a better future for people, organized as a political community”.
Michael Freeden, the noted student of ideology, reminds us: “We produce,
disseminate, and consume ideologies all our lives, whether we are aware of it or
not.” There is a reason for this: “Ideologies… map the political and social worlds
for us. We simply cannot do without them because we cannot act without making
sense of the worlds we inhabit.”
The term “ideology” was coined by a French Enlightenment aristocrat
called Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy (1754-1836). He advocated
“ideology” as a science, which could not only explain the world, but also point to
its shortcomings and ways to remedy them, i.e. – could change the world.
Destutt’s investigation of ideology led him to conclude that all political
doctrine should be judged by reason and reason alone; that a republican form of
government was preferable to a monarchy; and that the state should not
interfere in the economy. These conclusions got him in trouble with Napoleon,
who as Emperor could not afford to agree with any of them. So the Emperor
entered the philosophical battle field and, rather successfully, managed to turn
“ideology” into a term of abuse.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) followed Napoleon by describing Destutt as a “fishblooded bourgeois doctrinaire”, but his irritation with ideology stemmed from
entirely different grounds. Together with his partner Friedrich Engels (18201895), Marx was convinced that almost everything people knew about the world
was false – an “ideology” imposed on them by a ruling class that was interested,
not in objective knowledge, but in keeping the workers, exploited by that class,
from asking uncomfortable questions.
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” wrote
Marx and Engels. “The class which has the means of material production at its
disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”
The outcome, for the working people, was that they looked at the world
through a “false consciousness”. And it fell to people like Marx and Engels (who
called themselves “Communists”) to help the working people see through the
illusions of ideology; and recognize that their interest lies in overthrowing the
ruling class, abolishing private property and constructing a society, where
nobody rules anybody else and everything is everybody’s.
Through the second half of the 19th century, “ideology” continued to labour
under the label “distorted view of reality”. Political thinkers and parties avoided
using the word and, while in reality being heavily ideological, preferred to use
other words to denote their packages of ideas, such as “programme”,
“manifesto”, “platform” and even “philosophy”.
Things changed after the First World War. That war was such a
catastrophe for all involved that people came to the conclusion that there was
something very wrong with the way the world’s politics were constructed. The
search for an answer to questions, such as “What went wrong?” and “How to fix
it?” produced a new age of ideology. The new political movements and parties
shrugged off the old stigma on ideology as “false consciousness” and began
claiming that an ideology (theirs, of course) could be a “correct” or even a
“scientific” description of the world.
In Italy, for Mussolini’s Fascists claimed that what was wrong was the
existence of political parties, who divided the nation and weakened its state. The
Fascists produced an ideology, which placed the State above everything else:
“The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its
essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals
and groups relative,” adding, for greater clarity: “All within the state, nothing
outside the state, nothing against the state”.
In that State, people are represented – not via competing political parties,
but via “corporations” (professional guilds). Employers are represented as
employers, workers – as workers, farmers – as farmers and so on. On top of all
this stands the one Party that embodies the unity of the State.
In Soviet Russia, Stalin’s Communists believed that what was wrong with
the world was the existence of private property and the division of society into
two classes: those who had private property; and those who did not (and were
therefore forced to work for those who did). The ruling class was abolished, as
was private property, along with the entire political edifice of “capitalist
democracy”, such as independent media, rule of law, human rights and political
parties. This regime was called “dictatorship of the proletariat” and was
described, by Stalin himself, as “the tightest and mightiest form of state
authority that has ever existed in history.”
Based on this ideology, the Communists evolved a state structure similar
to that of the Fascists. There being no parties, people were to be represented
through their workplace organizations, called “Soviets”, who sent representatives
to the “Grand Soviet” sitting in the capital city. On top of this construction was
placed the one Party, which embodied the interests of the working people.
In Germany, Hitler’s Nazis (National Socialists) believed that what was
wrong with the world was that its “races” were not properly situated one towards
the other. The Nazis believed that there were superior and inferior races; and
that the superior ones were by right the rulers of the inferior. But under the rule
of democracy, races were all jumbled up together, leading to chaos and
degradation. The Germans, thought the Nazis, were a superior “Aryan” race; and
were, therefore, rightfully obliged to dominate inferior races, such as Jews and
Slavs. But, under democracy, the German “race” had been penetrated by Jews
and Slavs, who were degrading the Germans.
Hitler himself wrote:
“All the human culture, all the results of art, science and technology that
we see before us today, are almost exclusively the creative product of the Aryan.
This very fact admits of the not unfounded inference that he alone was the
founder of all higher humanity, therefore representing the prototype of all that
we understand by the word ‘man.’”
By definition, therefore, all non-Aryans were not “man”, not truly human
or, in the Nazis’ own word – “untermenschen”, under-human.
What needed to be done, therefore, was to cleanse Germany of inferior
races; and then assert Germany’s right to rule over all countries populated by
inferior races. In order to do this, the united German people needed to be
cleansed from the divisions of democracy and competing political parties, as well
as of independent media and rule of law (because both placed superior and
inferior races on the same footing). On top of this, as with the Fascists and the
Communists, stood the one Party, embodying the historical destiny of the Aryan
All of these “scientific” ideologies were extremely war-like and ultimately
produced the Second World War, giving “ideology” a bad name again. Post-war
political parties avoided using this term, returning to words such as
“programmes”, “platforms” and, increasingly, “policies”. In 1960, a celebrated
thinker, Daniel Bell (1919-2011) even published an influential collection of
essays, called “The End of Ideology”.
The non-Stalinist Left, however, focused closely on the term “ideology” in
order to understand what it in fact may mean. Even before the Second World
War, the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), languishing in one of
Mussolini’s prisons, came up with a novel concept, overturning Marx’s idea of
“false consciousness”, as well as the newer concepts of “scientific” ideology.
Gramsci came to the conclusion that it was not necessarily the case that
the dominant ideas of a given time were those of the ruling class. It is true,
argued Gramsci, that most of the time they were; but not always and not
inevitably. Quite simply, the dominant ideas of an age represented a hegemony
of someone’s ideas. That “someone” could be the ruling class; but could also not
be the ruling class. Therefore, if one was to struggle against the ruling class, one
could first try to acquire “hegemony” – i.e. to ensure that her ideas were seen as
natural and common-sensical by society; and then attack the privileged groups
and classes on the grounds of common sense.
Ultimately, today’s PR industry is one of the outcomes of this “hegemonic”
approach to ideology.
Without any linkage with Gramsci’s prison writings (which became known
only at the end of the 1960s), a Leftist circle of thinkers known as the “Frankfurt
School” also explored the problematic of ideological hegemony (without calling it
that). These thinkers evolved, by the 1960s, an approach known as “Critical
Theory”, described by one of its authors, Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) as a
theory that is critical to the extent that it seeks “human emancipation from
slavery”, acts as “a liberating influence”, and works “to create a world which
satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings.
Critical theory was in the business of: explaining what is wrong with the
world; identifying the actors to change it; and providing clear norms for criticism
and a strategic framework for social transformation. The ultimate core of the
theory, according to Horkheimer, was that it “has as its object human beings as
producers of their own historical form of life”. Or, as modern social
anthropologists would have it – human beings as “authors” of their own lives,
rather than as actors playing out someone else’s script for their lives.
Critical theory, we see, was a classic piece of “ideology” – an activist
explanation of the world. Together with Gramsci, however, the critical theorists
were convinced that the production of ideology was not inevitably the domain of
the ruling class. Anybody could do it – anybody could join the battle of ideas for
the future of their society.
And, in the 1960s, many people did. In the USA, Critical Theory informed
much of the struggles for civic rights, as well as the various attempts by the
hippie “Movement” to reconstruct America along new lines. In Western Europe,
the student rebellions in France and elsewhere were attacking the powers-thatbe from the position of new ideas of personal liberation. In Czechoslovakia and
Poland, whole nations confronted the dominant Communist ideology and
demanded that they be the authors of their own lives, rather than playing out
scripts written in the Kremlin.
Suddenly, everyone was in the business of trying to attain “ideological
hegemony” – something which set the stage for the gradual return of “ideology’
to the world of politics and government.
In the Communist East of Europe, the official package of ideas,
underpinned by the totalitarian dictatorships, had lost its hegemony by the
beginning of the 1980s. In spite of all efforts on the part of the dictators, by that
time it had become “common sense” that communism was a failure; and had no
future. “Hegemony” had been attained by those who were critical of the
communist system, although they had no access to the media and no right to
form political parties or movements. By the time Communism was openly
challenged, in the destruction of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, there was
nobody left who believed in the system enough to defend it.
This situation immediately led to another burst of “end-of-ideology”
thinking. Weeks before the fall of the Wall, the American thinker Francis
Fukuyama (b. 1952) attained instant fame when he published an essay titled
“The End of History”. In it, he argued that all arguments as to the best way to
organize human life – all ideology and, indeed, all “history” – ended with the
demise of the Communist ideology. Liberal democracy and the market economy
would, from here on, be unchallenged. We are witnesses, wrote Fukuyama, to
“the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of
Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
To his credit, he did foresee that some form of militant Islam may, at
some point in the future, rise to challenge this new hegemony; but he did not
really believe it possible.
For a while, the world behaved as if, indeed, all ideological arguments
were, once and for all, over. In politics, Left and Right agreed on more or less
the same policies and packages of ideas, structured around the concepts
dominant at the moment of the fall of the Wall – i.e. concepts arising out of a
Right-Conservative interpretation of the world, as best formulated by the then
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan.
Everyone joined in the celebration of the death of ideology, while
unconsciously producing new ideologies. One example is the European Union’s
ambition for an “ever-closer union”, published in 2000. This was a typical
ideological exercise, outlining what was wrong with the current situation (not
enough coordination between the policies of member states) and providing a
solution (ever-closer union). Another example were the economic policies,
dominant from the end of the 1990s in Europe and the USA. These policies
believed that what was wrong with the economy was too much state
interference; and that what needed to be done was – to withdraw the state from
the economy (“deregulation”).
“Ideology”, nevertheless, continued to be a dirty word in politics, replaced
increasingly by “pragmatism”: the idea that there was nothing basically wrong in
the world and that government and politics were, therefore, a matter of fixing
various problems arising.
This way of thinking continued until the attacks, mounted on the World
Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001, signaled that there was,
indeed, an Islamist challenge to the then current hegemony. By 2008, when
policies fuelled by the celebration of the free market produced the largest-ever
world financial crisis, few believed that ideology was truly dead. To compound
matters, a few years later Russia declared itself in ideological opposition to liberal
democracy and in 2013 invaded, by force of arms, a neighbouring country,
Ukraine, which had declared its allegiance to liberal democracy. A handful of
countries, run by dictators, followed Russia’s lead and also declared themselves
free of the “liberal-democratic ideology”.
By 2015, there was much that was obviously wrong with the world; and
challenges to the hegemony of liberal democracy and market economy were
multiplying around the globe. As people today search for answers to the usual
questions in such situations – “What went wrong?; “How to fix it?” – ideology is
back (if it ever truly went away).
Written by: Maurice Cranston
©2016 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Ideology, a form of social or political philosophy in which practical elements are as
prominent as theoretical ones. It is a system of ideas that aspires both to explain the world and
to change it.
This article describes the nature, history, and significance of ideologies in terms of the
philosophical, political, and international contexts in which they have arisen. Particular
categories of ideology are discussed in the articles socialism, communism, anarchism,
fascism, nationalism, liberalism, and conservatism.
Origins and characteristics of ideology
The word first made its appearance in French as idéologie at the time of the French
Revolution, when it was introduced by a philosopher, A.-L.-C. Destutt de Tracy, as a short
name for what he called his “science of ideas,” which he claimed to have adapted from the
epistemology of the philosophers John Locke and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, for whom all
human knowledge was knowledge of ideas. The fact is, however, that he owed rather more to
the English philosopher Francis Bacon, whom he revered no less than did the earlier French
philosophers of the Enlightenment. It was Bacon who had proclaimed that the destiny of
science was not only to enlarge human knowledge but also to “improve the life of men on
earth,” and it was this same union of the programmatic with the intellectual that distinguished
Destutt de Tracy’s idéologie from those theories, systems, or philosophies that were
essentially explanatory. The science of ideas was a science with a mission: it aimed at serving
people, even saving them, by ridding their minds of prejudice and preparing them for the
sovereignty of reason.
Destutt de Tracy and his fellow idéologues devised a system of national education that they
believed would transform France into a rational and scientific society. Their teaching
combined a fervent belief in individual liberty with an elaborate program of state planning,
and for a short time under the Directory (1795–99) it became the official doctrine of the
French Republic. Napoleon at first supported Destutt de Tracy and his friends, but he soon
turned against them, and in December 1812 he even went so far as to attribute blame for
France’s military defeats to the influence of the idéologues, of whom he spoke with scorn.
Thus ideology has been from its inception a word with a marked emotive content, though
Destutt de Tracy presumably had intended it to be a dry, technical term. Such was his own
passionate attachment to the science of ideas, and such was the high moral worth and purpose
he assigned to it, that the word idéologie was bound to possess for him a strongly laudatory
character. And equally, when Napoleon linked the name of idéologie with what he had come
to regard as the most detestable elements in Revolutionary thought, he invested the same word
with all of his feelings of disapprobation and mistrust. Ideology was, from this time on, to
play this double role of a term both laudatory and abusive not only in French but also in
German, English, Italian, and all the other languages of the world into which it was either
translated or transliterated.
Some historians of philosophy have called the 19th century the age of ideology, not because
the word itself was then so widely used, but because so much of the thought of the time can
be distinguished …
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