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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Sociological Approaches. A watershed in the study
of the ideology concept was reached in the works of
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who viewed ideology
as a system of false ideas, a statement of class position,
and a justification for class rule. Ideologies are second-
ary and unreal, since they are part of the “superstruc-
ture” and as such a reflection of the more fundamental
material economic “base.”

One's thought and belief patterns, Marxist theory
holds, are conditioned by one's socioeconomic exist-
ence. Socioeconomic relationships, particularly prop-
erty relationships, set the stage for man's bondage and
“alienation.” They dehumanize man by thwarting his
creative impulses. They separate man from himself, his
productivity, and the society to which he belongs.

Socioeconomic relationships are institutionalized in
social classes. One's ideology is therefore a function
of the class to which one belongs. More specifically,
ideologies are deliberate creations of false images by
the dominant class to manipulate and control the
masses, and to perpetuate its own rule. “The ideas of
the ruling class,” wrote Marx and Engels, “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” (The German Ideology, p. 39).

Marx and Engels attached a derogatory connotation
to ideology, since they viewed all ideological thought
as the dishonest use of reasoning, as the conscious or
unconscious distortion of facts in order to justify the
position of the ruling class. Ideology represents, in
Engels' memorable phrase, “false consciousness.”

The proposition that false consciousness may provide
a basis for action suggests, as many have pointed out,
that ideas and ideologies enjoy a measure of autonomy
—a realization that runs counter to Marx's earlier
assertion about the dependence of ideas on the eco-
nomic system. Engels was to explain, after Marx's
death, that Marx had indeed overemphasized the eco-
nomic factor, and for a good reason. He wrote: “Marx
and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that
younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the eco-
nomic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize this
main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who
denied it, and we had not always the time, the place
or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved
in the interaction to come into their own rights”
(Selected Correspondence, p. 477). However, Engels
maintained, although there is no inflexible one-way
relationship between idea systems and economic sys-
tems, sooner or later the two will coincide.

Marx and Engels, by basing ideas on the socioeco-
nomic system, raised an issue that, at the hand of Karl
Mannheim, came to be known as the “sociology of
knowledge”: the study of social bases, conditions,
varieties, and distortions of ideas. To this extent, soci-
ology of knowledge is reminiscent of the epistemologi-
cal approach to ideology, except that Mannheim pro-
posed to elevate the enterprise to a truly scientific
status devoted to the unmasking of the ideological
biases in thought.

Mannheim's approach differed from Marx's in im-
portant respects. Influenced by Max Weber, Mannheim
abandoned Marx's primarily class approach and based
ideology on the total social structure, particularly polit-
ical parties. (This prompted some scholars like R. K.
Merton in his Social Theory and Social Structure
[New York, 1957, p. 490] to call Mannheim a “bour-
geois Marx,” a label that was applied earlier to Weber.)
Moreover, Mannheim argued, Marx's approach had
inappropriately fused two distinctive types of ideology:
the “particular” and the “total.”

The particular conception of ideology denotes that
“we are skeptical of the ideas and representations
advanced by our opponent,” because “they are re-
garded as more or less conscious disguises of the real
nature of a situation, the true recognition of which
would not be in accord with his interests.” It includes
“all those utterances the 'falsity' of which is due to
intentional or unintentional, conscious, semiconscious,


or unconscious, deluding of one's self or of others,
taking place on a psychological level and structurally
resembling lies.” This conception is “particular” be-
cause “it always refers only to specific assertions which
may be regarded as concealments, falsifications, or lies
without attacking the integrity of the total mental
structure of the asserting subject” (Mannheim, pp.
55-56, 265-66).

Mannheim contrasts the particular conception of
ideology to the total conception: “Here we refer to
the ideology of an age or of a concrete historico-social
group, e.g. of a class, when we are concerned with
the characteristics and composition of the total struc-
ture of the mind of this epoch or of this group” (ibid.,
p. 56). The total conception, in other words, refers to
the Weltanschauung of an age or of a historical group.

The two conceptions of ideology have in common
the fact that they are determined by one's social cir-
cumstances. Beyond this they differ in some important
respects: (1) the particular conception calls into ques-
tion only a portion of the opponent's assertions,
whereas the total conception challenges the opponent's
entire world-outlook and admits of no nonideological
thought; (2) the particular conception rests on a psy-
chological analysis of ideas, whereas the total concep-
tion operates at an epistemological-ontological level
wherein the entire “thought-system” is analyzed as
socially-historically determined; (3) the particular con-
ception is associated largely with individuals, the total
conception with collectivities; (4) the particular con-
ception historically precedes the total conception.

Mannheim draws a further distinction between
“ideology” and “utopia.” Ideology, according to this
formulation, is an idea system congruent with, and
supportive of, the status quo. Utopia, by contrast, is
an idea system opposed to the status quo and support-
ive of an alternative social order. Only those mental
orientations are utopian, Mannheim holds, “which,
when they pass over into conduct, tend to shatter,
either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing
at the time” (ibid., p. 192). The ideology-utopia dis-
tinction is rather farfetched, however, since either
concept may be simultaneously opposed to (or sup-
portive of) a given status quo and supportive of (or
opposed to) a rival one.

Conclusions strikingly similar to those of Marx were
reached via an entirely different route by two early
European sociologists, Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo
Pareto, who were in some respects the intellectual
nemesis of Marx. Mosca and Pareto believe in a scien-
tific approach to social analysis. To be fruitful, they
maintain, social science must be objective; to be objec-
tive, it must rest on observable and verifiable grounds.
The most fundamental fact of social existence is that
human society at all times has been characterized by
a fundamental division between a minority that rules
and a majority that is ruled, between elite and mass.

According to Mosca, the most decisive feature of
any society is its ruling class. A society's art, culture,
politics, religion, etc., are all determined by the domi-
nant social stratum. As such, social analysis must begin
and end with the ruling class—its origin, development,
composition, and change. Politics consists of violent
struggles among contending groups for power, for the
ruling positions in society. The leaders maintain, per-
petuate, rationalize, and justify their own rule through
the skillful manipulation of “political formulas” or

Pareto stresses the prevalence of the irrational in
human conduct. He insists, under the influence of
Freudian psychology, that significant portions of
human behavior are motivated and sustained by non-
logical drives lying well below the level of conscious-
ness. Man's conduct is governed as much by uncon-
scious habit as by deliberate choice.

Pareto's approach is also influenced by a conception
of “myth” developed by Georges Sorel. All society,
according to Sorel, is guided and directed by myth;
the myth is the most important factor in social life.
A myth consists of a body of symbols and images
capable of evoking sentiment and propelling men to
action. More specifically, a myth has two components:
a statement of goals or objectives, and a commitment
to a line of action toward the materialization of the
objectives. A myth, in other words, is an “expression
of a determination to act” (Sorel, p. 50); it binds a
group of people together, taps their sentiment and
emotion, and directs their energy toward specific ob-
jectives. The most important function of any leadership
group is to provide the appropriate myth for a society.

Pareto divides all human conduct into two categor-
ies—logical and nonlogical—in terms of whether it
employs suitable means in pursuit of attainable objec-
tives. He contends that most human action is non-
logical, and that nonlogical action is especially per-
vasive in the sociopolitical realm. All societies, he
points out, are filled with taboos, magic, and myths.
In the political realm, codes, constitutions, platforms,
and programs fail to meet the criteria of logical action,
since, among other things, they are stated in the
vaguest, most rhetorical, most meaningless terms.

Pareto distinguishes two types of nonlogical action:
“residues” and “derivations.” Residues refer to a fairly
small number of constant factors—“nuclei”—in human
behavior that change little from age to age, culture
to culture. Derivations consist of the large number of
factors that change rapidly with time and place; they
are manifestations and expressions of residues. Deriva-


tions are the verbal expressions—including “ideolo-
gies”—that seek to explain, rationalize, and justify the
residues through appeal to sentiment, emotion, custom,
and tradition. Residues and derivations are interde-
pendent; they are motive forces of social conduct. (It
is interesting to note Krishna P. Mukerji's comment
that Pareto's theory of residues and derivations is a
variation on Marx's theory of base and superstructure;
Mukerji, p. 17.)

The concept of ideology, then, is a major variable
in these writers' analyses of society. Used synonymously
with “myth,” “political formula,” or “derivation,” ide-
ology is viewed as the matrix of social behavior, the
guiding force in human society, and the principal
means for attaining social solidarity. It is approached
as an instrument for leadership manipulation and con-
trol of the masses, a means for rationalizing, legitimiz-
ing, and perpetuating a given state of affairs.

Among contemporary sociologists, Talcott Parsons
and Daniel Bell deserve special attention. In general,
Parsons defines ideology as “an empirical belief system
held in common by the members of any collectivity.”
More specifically:

An ideology... is a system of beliefs, held in common by
the members of a collectivity, i.e., a society, or a sub-
collectivity of one—including a movement deviant from the
main culture of the society—a system of ideas which is
oriented to the evaluative integration of the collectivity,
by interpretation of the empirical nature of the collectivity
and of the situation in which it is placed, the processes
by which it has developed to its given state, the goals to
which its members are collectively oriented, and their
relation to the future course of events

(Parsons [1951], pp.
354, 349).

The phrase “a sub-collectivity of one” suggests that
ideology may be a purely personal phenomenon. Par-
sons states in the same work, however, that ideology
refers “primarily” to the belief system of collectivities,
and he proposes to call the belief system of individuals
“personal ideology” (ibid., p. 331).

Moreover, it is clear from the larger definition, ide-
ology involves goal-directed behavior; it serves as a
basis for action toward improving the welfare of the
collectivity. It binds the community together, and it
legitimizes its value orientations. Finally, ideology
involves an element of distortion: “the strongly evalu-
ative reference of ideologies tends to link in with the
'wishful' or romantic-utopian element of motivation
which is present in every social system. There will
generally... be a tendency to ideological distortion
of the reality in the direction of giving reign to the
wishful element” (ibid., p. 357).

Elaborating on this point elsewhere, Parsons identi-
fies the “essential criteria of an ideology” as “deviations
from [social] scientific objectivity.” He identifies two
types of deviations: one associated with the selectivity
with which ideologies approach problems and treat
issues; the other with the positive distortions of those
problems and issues that ideologies do choose to treat.
He writes: “The criterion of distortion is that state-
ments are made about the society which by social-
scientific methods can be shown to be positively in
error, whereas selectivity is involved where the state-
ments are, at the proper level, 'true,' but do not consti-
tute a balanced account of the available truth” (Parsons
[1959], p. 38).

The “functional” approach to ideology—its action-
orientation, its ability to promote or undermine legiti-
macy, its potential for attaining social solidarity and
value integration—has been emphasized by Daniel
Bell. According to Bell:

Ideology is the conversion of ideas into social levers. With-
out irony, Max Lerner once entitled a book Ideas Are
This is the language of ideology. It is more. It
is the commitment to the consequences of ideas.... For
the ideologue, truth arises in action, and meaning is given
to experience by the “transforming moment.” He comes
alive not in contemplation, but in “the deed”

(Bell [1960],
pp. 370-71).

Elsewhere, Bell defines ideology as

... an interpretative system of political ideas embodying
and concretizing the more abstract values of a polity (or
social movement) which, because of its claim to justification
by some transcendent morality (for example, history), de-
mands a legitimacy for its belief system and a commitment
to action in the effort to realize those beliefs

(Bell [1965],
p. 595, n. 6).

To sum up, the sociological approaches are centrally
concerned with ideology as a system of socially deter-
mined ideas, without necessary truth-value but with
great potential for social solidarity as well as for social
control, mobilization, and manipulation. In addition,
ideologies may serve to justify (or reject) a particular
set of goals and values and to legitimize (or denounce)
political authority. Some writers attach a derogatory
connotation to ideology, whereas others see it in a
neutral light.