For centuries, the word ‘ideology’ has undergone revolutions and dynamism that have changed the context of its usage and understanding. Given the special position of the word in today’s life of radicalism and revolutionary attempts, it has become increasingly imperative to give a precise comprehension of the term to create boundaries of its usage. Several ideas and concepts about beliefs in religions and political systems have cropped in all corners of the world, prompting people to develop different ideologies concerning culture, economy and politics. For this reason, the term ‘ideology’ has been used more widely now than any other time in history. This work looks at ‘ideology’ in the manner in which it originated, developed to its contemporary use. In addition, it looks at the contribution of Marx, Engels and Louis Althuser in the current understanding of ‘ideology’.
The word “ideology” appeared in English for the first time in 1796 (Williams). It was a direct translation from the then new French word, “ideologie” that had been proposed in that year by Destutt de Tracy, a rationalist philosopher of the time. Tracy had read a paper and proposed that the philosophy of the mind be called “ideology”. He had in mind to coin the term to mean science of the mind that would distinguish it from the traditionally well known metaphysics. The term “ideology” was used in linguistic theory and epistemology until IC19. Later on, the new concept of the term as it is contemporarily used emanated from and was popularized by Napoleon Bonaparte. As he attacked the proponents of democracy, Napoleon Bonaparte elevated them to sovereignty that the democracy minds could not maintain. He called the principles of Enlighten as “ideology” (Kamenka).
The use of the word in Napoleon’s school of thought became extensively popular. To date, the term is still applicable to mean the idea Napoleon had of it to some conservative minds. Conservative criticism views social policies that partially or fully originate from social theory in a conscious way as ideology. The term is especially used in reference to socialist or democratic policies. Following in the Napoleon’s idea of the term, these conservative criticisms hold the term to be equivalent to revolutionary (Williams). The contemporary meaning of the terms ‘ideology’, ‘ideologist’ and ‘ideological’ are acquired from broadening from Napoleon’s attack; a sense of fanatical, impractical or abstract theory.
There is some sense of continuity from the pejorative sense of ‘ideology’ as used in C19 by the conservative thinkers to the pejorative sense of the world used and popularized by Engels and Marx in the German Ideology (Bruce and Handler). Resulting from the duo’s idea of the word ‘ideology’, Scott distinguished ideology as the theory that rests in “no respect upon the basis of self-interest. This was on the contrary to Napoleon’s alternative that had vaguely meant the knowledge of a human heart and the lessons of history. Marx and Engels concentrated on the origin and meaning of the word to rely on the real processes of history. The duo believed that ideas of a ruling epoch are no more than the ideal expressions of the dominating material relationships. They reiterated in their publication that the failure to understand this relationship leads to an ideology; a reversed version of reality of the time.
Engels held that every ideology develops in connection with a given concept material once it has arisen. The development develops the material concept further; otherwise it ceases to be an ideology. He defines ideology as occupation with thoughts as with independent entities that develop independently subject to their own laws alone. Material life conditions of the people whose minds contain the thought processes move on to their last resort. In other words, Engel describes ideology as the process that is accomplished by the thinker consciously indeed, but with a false consciousness. The motive compelling the person with ideologies remains unknown to him. If a person understands the reasons that impel him or her to believe, it ceases being an ideology. Hence, the holder of the ideology imagines false and apparent motives. Since this is a process of thought, he derives both form and form from pure thought of his or her own or that of his or her predecessors.
Ideology is, therefore, false and abstract thought in a sense. It is directly related to the original use that was traditional and conservative but with an alternative; the knowledge of real relationships and real material conditions. Marx and Engels used this idea critically. According to the thinkers of the ruling class, active conceptive ideologists make perfect the illusion of the class about itself their core source of livelihood.
Marx’s ideology refers to the production of ideas of consciousness and of conception of all that man says, conceives, imagines and says. In his list, he includes politics, religion, laws, morality and metaphysic as part of the components of an ideology. According to Marx, ideology functions as the superstructure of civilization. Ideologies are the convictions and cultures that comprise the dominant ideas of humanity. He notes that the ideologies of a given historical period are the ideas of the ruling class. Given that one of the goals of ideology is to legitimize the forces in position of hegemony, Marx notes that it intends to obfuscate the exploitation and violence that keeps disempowered groups in their place. Marx looks at the oppressed and lowly in the society including slaves in tribal societies, peasantry in feudal communities and proletariats in capitalist societies. He notes that obfuscation leads to logical contradictions in a dominant ideology. He labors to uncover this by turning to the material conditions of society; the modes of production of society.
Other than the studies and reports on ideology by Marx and Engels, the other researcher who made a notable contribution to the understanding of the word was Louis Althuser. He proposed rather a materialistic conception of ideology. His idea of ideology made use of a special form of discourse; the lacunar disclosure. He looks at ideology as a number of propositions that are untrue suggesting a number of other propositions that are true. In this manner, Louis Althuser viewpoint only suggests the essence of the lacunar discourse, but does not tell that he has applied the discourse.
He gives an example of the phrase, “all are equal before the law”. The phrase is a theoretical groundwork of current legal systems suggesting that all persons have equal opportunities and equal worth. This proportion may not be true as the concepts of power and private property over the means of production leads to some people having the capacity to own much more than others. The disparity in power contradicts the claim that everyone shares both future opportunities and practical worth equally. For instance, the rich have the ability to afford better legal representation than the poor and are, therefore, more privileged before the law.
Louis Althuser also proffered the concept of Ideological State Apparatus in explaining his theory of ideology. He hypothesized that an ideology has no history (Kamenka). In a broad way, Louis Althuser reiterated that while individual ideologies may have a history, the concept of ideology has no history. Individual ideologies have histories that are interleaved with class struggles of the society, but the general ideology is external to history. For Louis Althuser, ideas and beliefs are the products of social practices. Social practices are not the results of beliefs and ideas. He uses Scandalous Advice to support his idea that ideas are materials. For instance, he says, “Kneel and pray, and then you will believe”.
Considering the ideas of Louis Althuser against those of Marx and Engel, the latter is more comprehensive and gives a more convincing comprehension of ideology. Marx and Engels’ publication provides a practical approach that anyone new to the idea of ideology can understand. On the other hand, Louis Althuser gives an analysis of the term with an assumption that his audience is already aware of the subject matter. With Marx and Engels publication, the term ‘ideology’ becomes applicable. It goes beyond the abstract form that Louis Althuser proposes.
Bruce, Burret and Glen Handler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. NewYork and London: New York University Press, 1990.
Kamenka, Eugine. Karl Marx Selected Translated in Part. Chicago: Penguine Books, 1986.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.