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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 from that prevailing in the previous centuries by features that would now be
called ideological. Even so, there is a limit to the extent to which one can speak today of an
agreed use of the word. The subject of ideology is a controversial one, and it is arguable that
at least some part of this controversy derives from disagreement as to the definition of the
word ideology. One can, however, discern both a strict and a loose way of using it. In the
loose sense of the word, ideology may mean any kind of action-oriented theory or any attempt
to approach politics in the light of a system of ideas. Ideology in the stricter sense stays fairly
close to Destutt de Tracy’s original conception and may be identified by five characteristics:
(1) it contains an explanatory theory of a more or less comprehensive kind about human
experience and the external world; (2) it sets out a program, in generalized and abstract terms,
of social and political organization; (3) it conceives the realization of this program as entailing
a struggle; (4) it seeks not merely to persuade but to recruit loyal adherents, demanding what
is sometimes called commitment; (5) it addresses a wide public but may tend to confer some
special role of leadership on intellectuals. In this article the noun ideology is used only in its
strict sense; the adjective ideological is used to refer to ideology as broadly defined.
On the basis of the five features above, then, one can recognize as ideologies systems as
diverse as Destutt de Tracy’s own science of ideas, the positivism of the French philosopher
Auguste Comte, communism and several other types of socialism, fascism, Nazism, and
certain kinds of nationalism. That all these “-isms” belong to the 19th or 20th century may
suggest that ideologies are no older than the word itself—that they belong essentially to a
period in which secular belief increasingly replaced traditional religious faith.
Seventeenth-century England occupies an important place in the history of ideology.
Although there were then no fully fledged ideologies in the strict sense of the term, political
theory, like politics itself, began to acquire certain ideological characteristics. The swift
movement of revolutionary forces throughout the 17th century created a demand for theories
to explain and justify the radical action that was often taken. Locke’s Two Treatises of
Government (1690) is an outstanding example of literature written to justify individual rights
against absolutism. This growth of abstract theory in the 17th century, this increasing
tendency to construct systems and discuss politics in terms of principles, marks the emergence
of the ideological style. In political conversation generally it was accompanied by a growing
use of concepts such as right and liberty—ideals in terms of which actual policies were
Hegel and Marx
Although the word ideology in the sense derived from
Destutt de Tracy’s understanding has passed into modern usage, it is important to notice the
particular sense that ideology is given in Hegelian and Marxist philosophy, where it is used in
a pejorative way. Ideology there becomes a word for what these philosophers also call “false
consciousness.” G.W.F. Hegel argued that people were instruments of history; they enacted
roles that were assigned to them by forces they did not understand; the meaning of history
was hidden from them. Only the philosopher could expect to understand things as they were.
This Hegelian enterprise of interpreting reality and reconciling the world to itself was
condemned by certain critics as an attempt to provide an ideology of the status quo, in that if
individuals were indeed mere ciphers whose actions were determined by external forces, then
there was little point in trying to change or improve political and other circumstances. This is
a criticism Karl Marx took up, and it is the argument he developed in Die deutsche Ideologie
(written 1845–46, published 1932; The German Ideology) and other earlier writings. Ideology
in this sense is a set of beliefs with which people deceive themselves; it is theory that
expresses what they are led to think, as opposed to that which is true; it is false consciousness.
Marx, however, was not consistent in
his use of the word ideology, for he did not always use the term pejoratively, and some of his
references to it clearly imply the possibility of an ideology being true. Twentieth-century
Marxists, who frequently discarded the pejorative sense of ideology altogether, were content
to speak of Marxism as being itself an ideology. In certain communist countries, “ideological
institutes” were established, and party philosophers were commonly spoken of as party
ideologists. Marxism is an excellent example, a paradigm, of an ideology.
The political context
Ideology, rationalism, and romanticism
If some theorists emphasize the kinship between ideology and various forms of religious
enthusiasm, others stress the connection between ideology and what they call rationalism, or
the attempt to understand politics in terms of abstract ideas rather than of lived experience.
Like Napoleon, who held that ideology is par excellence the work of intellectuals, some
theorists are suspicious of those who think they know about politics because they have read
many books; they believe that politics can be learned only by an apprenticeship to politics
Such people are not unsympathetic to political theories, such as Locke’s, but they argue that
their value resides in the facts that are derived from experience. Michael Oakeshott in
England described Locke’s theory of political liberty as an “abridgment” of the Englishman’s
traditional understanding of liberty and suggested that once such a conception is uprooted
from the tradition that has given it meaning it becomes a rationalistic doctrine or metaphysical
abstraction, like those liberties contained in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which were
so much talked about after the French Revolution but rarely actually enjoyed, in France or
Whereas Oakeshott saw ideology as a form of rationalism, Edward Shils, a U.S. political
scientist, saw it more as a product of, among other things, romanticism with an extremist
character. His argument was that romanticism has fed into and swelled the seas of ideological
politics by its cult of the ideal and by its scorn for the actual, especially its scorn for what is
mediated by calculation and compromise. Since civil politics demands both compromise and
contrivance and calls for a prudent self-restraint and responsible caution, he suggested that
civil politics is bound to be repugnant to romanticism. Hence Shils concluded that the
romantic spirit is naturally driven toward ideological politics.
Ideology and terror
The “total” character of ideology, its
extremism and violence, have been analyzed by other critics, among whom the French
philosopher-writer Albert Camus and the Austrian-born British philosopher Sir Karl Popper
merit particular attention. Beginning as an existentialist who subscribed to the view that “the
universe is absurd,” Camus passed to a personal affirmation of justice and human decency as
compelling values to be realized in conduct. An Algerian by birth, Camus also appealed to
what he believed to be the “Mediterranean” tradition of moderation and human warmth and
joy in living as opposed to the “northern” Germanic tradition of fanatical, puritan devotion to
metaphysical abstractions. In his book L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel), he argued that the
true rebel is not the person who conforms to the orthodoxy of some revolutionary ideology
but a person who could say “no” to injustice. He suggested that the true rebel would prefer the
politics of reform, such as that of modern trade-union socialism, to the totalitarian politics of
Marxism or similar movements. The systematic violence of ideology—the crimes de logique
that were committed in its name—appeared to Camus to be wholly unjustifiable. Hating
cruelty, he believed that the rise of ideology in the modern world had added enormously to
human suffering. Though he was willing to admit that the ultimate aim of most ideologies was
to diminish human suffering, he argued that good ends did not authorize the use of evil
A somewhat similar plea for what he called “piecemeal social engineering” was put forward
by Popper, who argued that ideology rests on a logical mistake: namely the notion that history
can be transformed into science. In Logik der Forschung (1934; The Logic of Scientific
Discovery), Popper suggested that the true method of science was not one of observation,
hypothesis, and confirmation but one of conjecture and experiment, in which the concept of
falsification played a crucial role. By this concept he meant that in science there is a
continuing process of trial and error; conjectures are put to the test of experiment, and those
that are not falsified are provisionally accepted; thus there is no definitive knowledge but only
provisional knowledge that is constantly being corrected. Popper saw in the enterprise of
ideology an attempt to find certainty in history and to produce predictions on the model of
what were supposed to be scientific predictions. Ideologists, he argued, because they have a
false notion of what science is, can produce only prophecies, which are quite distinct from
scientific predictions and which have no scientific validity whatever. Though Popper was well
disposed toward the idea of a “scientific” approach to politics and ethics, he suggested that a
full awareness of the importance of trial and error in science would prompt one to look for
similar forms of “negative judgment” elsewhere.
By no means are all ideologists explicit champions of violence, but it is characteristic of
ideology both to exalt action and to regard action in terms of a military analogy. Some
observers have pointed out that one has only to consider the prose style of the founders of
most ideologies to be struck by the military and warlike language that they habitually use,
including words like struggle, resist, march, victory, and overcome; the literature of ideology
is replete with martial expressions. In such a view, commitment to an ideology becomes a
form of enlistment so that to become the adherent of an ideology is to become a combatant or
In the years that followed World War II, a number of ideological writers went beyond the
mere use of military language and made frank avowals of their desire for violence—not that it
was a new thing to praise violence. The French political philosopher Georges Sorel, for
example, had done so before World War I in his book Réflexions sur la violence (1908;
Reflections on Violence). Sorel was usually regarded as being more a fascist than a socialist.
He also used the word violence in his own special way; by violence Sorel meant passion, not
the throwing of bombs and the burning of buildings.
Violence found eloquent champions in several black militant writers of the 1960s, notably the
Martinican theorist Frantz Fanon. Moreover, several of the French philosopher Jean-Paul
Sartre’s dramatic writings turn on the theme that “dirty hands” are necessary in politics and
that a person with so-called bourgeois inhibitions about bloodshed cannot usefully serve a
revolutionary cause. Sartre’s attachment to the ideal of revolution tended to increase as he
grew older, and in some of his later writings he suggested that violence might even be a good
thing in itself.
In considering Sartre’s views on the subject of ideology it must be noted that Sartre
sometimes used the word ideology in a sense peculiarly his own. In an early section of his
Critique de la raison dialectique (1960; Critique of Dialectical Reason), Sartre drew a
distinction between philosophies and ideologies in which he reserved the term philosophy for
those major systems of thought, such as the rationalism of Descartes or the idealism of Hegel,
which dominate people’s minds at a certain moment in history. He defined an ideology as a
minor system of ideas, living on the margin of the genuine philosophy and exploiting the
domain of the greater system. What Sartre proposed in this work was a revitalization and
modernization of the “major philosophy” of Marxism through the integration of elements
drawn from the “ideology,” or minor system, of existentialism. What emerged from the book
was a theory in which the existentialist elements are more conspicuous than the Marxist.
Ideology and pragmatism
A distinction is often drawn between the ideological and the pragmatic approach to politics,
the latter being understood as the approach that treats particular issues and problems purely on
their merits and does not attempt to apply doctrinal, preconceived remedies. Theorists have
debated whether or not politics has become less ideological and whether a pragmatic approach
can be shown to be better than an ideological one.
On the first question, there seemed to be good reason for thinking that after the death of Stalin
and the repudiation of Stalinism by the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, at least, was
becoming more interested in the “pragmatic” concerns of national security and the balance of
power and less interested in the ideological aim of fostering universal communism. This in
turn seemed to many to have resulted—in both the United States and the Soviet Union—in a
shift toward a pragmatic policy of coexistence and a peaceful division of spheres of influence.
There were indications in many countries that the old antagonisms between capitalist and
socialist ideologies were giving way to a search for techniques for making a mixed economy
work more effectively for the good of all.
But while many observers believed that there was much evidence of a decline of ideology in
the latter 1950s, others believed that there were equally manifest signs in the following decade
of a revival of ideology, if not within the major political parties, then at least among the public
generally. Throughout the world various left-wing movements emerged to challenge the
whole ethos on which pragmatic politics was based. Not all these ideologies were coherent,
and none possessed the elaborate intellectual structure of the 19th-century ideologies; but
together they served to demonstrate that the end of ideology was not yet at hand.
As suggested earlier, certain controversies about ideology have to some extent been rooted in
the ambiguity of the word itself, and this is perhaps especially relevant to the confrontation
between ideology and pragmatism, since the word pragmatism raises problems no less
intractable than those involved in connection with the word ideology. In the senses outlined at
the beginning of this article, ideology is manifestly not the only alternative to pragmatism in
politics, and to reject ideology would not necessarily be to adopt pragmatism. Ordinary
language does not yet yield as many words as political science needs to clarify the question,
and it becomes necessary to introduce such expressions as belief system, or to name the
relevant distinctions, to further the analysis.
Almost any approach to politics constitutes a belief system of one kind or another. Some such
belief systems are more structured, more ordered, and generally systematic than others.
Though an ideology is a type of belief system, not all belief systems are ideologies. One
person’s belief system may consist of a congeries of ill-assorted prejudices and inarticulate
assumptions. Another’s may be the result of deep reflection and careful study. It is sometimes
felt to be convenient to speak of a belief system of this latter type as a philosophy or, better, to
distinguish it from philosophy in the technical or academic sense, as a Weltanschauung
(literally, a “view of the world”).
The confrontation between ideology and pragmatism may be more instructive if it is
translated into a distinction between the ideological and the pragmatic, taking these two
adjectives as extremes on a sliding scale. From this perspective, it becomes possible to speak
of differences of degree, to speak of an approach to politics as being more or less ideological,
more or less pragmatic. At the same time it becomes possible to speak of a belief system such
as liberalism as lending itself to a variety of forms, tending at the one e …
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