Ideology Essay

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Proposing a science of ideas which would empirically analyze the human mind, Antoine Destutt de Tracy’s Elements d’ideologie (1801) introduced the concept and gave ideology its first meaning. Consistent with Enlightenment rationalism, ideology would demonstrate that once the basis of ideas was understood, one could constitute society in harmony with human nature. Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive is one culmination of this conception of ideology — achieving the positivist stage, the development of the human mind would indicate how all historical phenomena are subject to invariable, natural laws. Reason would allow true order to reign.

Initially supported by Napoleon Bonaparte, after he reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church Bonaparte denounced Destutt and other savants in the Institut de France for advocating a politically motivated, simplified body of ideas that distorted the truth. This gave ideology a second, politicized meaning.

In contrast to French positivism and British empiricism, Hegel’s philosophy centred on the primacy of mind over matter. The history of philosophy was Mind progressively grasping the true rationality that underlies the sensible world. Thinking individuals are the medium through which Mind becomes the active, generating force leading towards absolute, comprehensive truth. Although Hegel’s Philosophy of Right buttressed the conservative Prussian monarchy, his left-Hegelian interpreters emphasized the ongoing critical potential of individual, critical minds continuing Mind’s development towards Absolute Reason. Hegel’s ideology — his systematic study of ideas and their impact — dominated conservative and radical German thought in the mid-nineteenth century.

”Humankind has, up to now, always created false representations [falsche Vorstellungen] about itself and thus what it is and ought to be” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1932: 3) argued. Humankind has endowed ideas with ultimate power and subsumed itself under its own creations; consciousness appears to determine being. The German Ideology (1845) criticized the ”German ideologues” for failing to expose Hegel’s fundamental errors and not recognizing the true origin of ideas. One must begin with ”actual individuals, their actions and their material conditions of life” which give rise to ”a definite way to express [auflern] their life” (pp. 10—11). ”Consciousness [Bewufltsein] can never be anything else than conscious being [bewulte Sein], and the being of humanity is its actual life-process” (p. 15).

This perspective introduced new dimensions to ideology. It remained the systematic account of the basis for ideas but now claimed that there were ”false conceptions” which arose because, like the camera obscura, reality is passively accepted in an inverted manner (ideas appear to govern people). By overturning this misperception, one would overcome an existing ”false consciousness,” discover the true origin of ideas, transcend a condition in which a human product, separated from its producers confronts and dominates its creators — a particular form of alienation — and recognize the real basis for social change.

Marx and Engels also used ideology to denote a partial, distorting perspective representing particular, vested interests — ”The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

In History and Class Consciousness (1923), criticizing ”vulgar Marxists” for ignoring consciousness, Georg Lukacs emphasized the Hegel—Marx connection to explore knowledge, ideology, reification and false consciousness in detail. He argued that the proletariat’s unique, objective conditions would lead it beyond a reified, ideologically distorted, false consciousness to a true, universal consciousness. Lukacs’s subsequent disavowal of the work helped legitimize Stalin’s Dialectical Materialism as official Soviet ideology — negating his great intellectual accomplishment.

Karl Mannheim wrote Ideology and Utopia (1929) to disentangle ideology from its Marxist roots. Ideologies, Mannheim argued, arose from social experiences and expressed a particular Weltanschauung (worldview). Detailing how knowledge was based on social practice, Mannheim initiated the sociology of knowledge as a sub-discipline within sociology. Mannheim also suggested that intellectuals could produce impartial worldviews to replace the distorting, total ideologies that were guiding political life.

For various reasons, sociologists have largely abandoned ideology to conceptualize how governing powers create consent to their rule and now use Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. By including culture and various social practices within it, hegemony is conceptually more inclusive than ideology. Through ”the war of position,” hegemony also suggests that a dominant ideology competes against alternative worldviews, cultural perceptions, and other counter-hegemonic forces.


  1. Eagleton, T. (2007) Ideology, 2nd edn. Verso, London.
  2. Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1932) Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (Marx-Engels Complete Works), part 1, vol. 5. Marx—Engels—Verlag, Berlin.

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