Political Ideology Part 1

Understanding political ideology is essential to then start thinking about theories of change, theories of power, revolutionary strategy and vision. We all have a political ideology, whether we realise it or not. Radicals refer to ideologies all the time but I think they are used vaguely without a clear frame of reference. I think it is important to have a shared understanding of concepts and words to avoid misunderstandings. I am the process of added a glossary page to the blog to help with this.

A key text for understanding political ideologies is Political Ideologies : An Introduction by Andrew Heywood (4th edition from 2007) which is where the content for these initial posts on ideology is referenced from. Although I don’t agree with Heywood’s take on everything, it is a good starting point for understanding the importance of political ideology and what the different ideologies are.

I think getting clear on political ideologies is essential, so we know which ideologies want to change society to make things better for everyone, and which ideologies are working against that, either to maintain the current power arrangements, or are actively trying to roll back gains and increase inequality further.

The term ideology was coined during the French Revolution, to refer to a new ‘science of ideas’. There is no agreed definition for the term and Heywood gives two reasons for this. First, concepts related to ideology link theory and practice, so the term represents highly contentious debates about the role of ideas in politics. What is the relationship between beliefs and theories, compared to material life or political conduct? The second is that the term ‘ideology’ has been used as a political weapon or device to criticize rival sets of ideas of belief systems.


Marxism and Ideology

Heywood explains that Karl Marx’s and later Marxist thinkers’ use of the term ‘ideology’ resulted in the importance of ideology in modern social and political thought. Marx had a very different understanding of the concept than is used in mainstream political analysis. Heywood lists four crucial features of Marx’s view of ideology. First, Marx believed that ideology presented a mystification and a false or mistaken view of the world, what Engels referred to as ‘false consciousness’. Marx classified his own ideas as scientific and truthful, compared to ideology and falsehood. Second, Marx linked ideology to the class system and the distortion implicit in ideology originates from the fact that it reflects the interests of the ruling class. Third, ideology conceals the contradictions of capitalism in society, that are disguised from the exploited proletariat, their own exploitation, which therefore maintain a system of unequal class power. Finally, Marx believed that ideology was a temporary phenomenon, that would only continue as long as the class system continues. The proletariat, in Marx’s view, are the ‘grave diggers’ of capitalism and will create a classless society with the collective ownership of wealth [1].

Heywood describes how Marx’s overly optimistic prediction of capitalism’s end interested later Marxists in the concept: ideology was seen as one of the reasons for the resilience of capitalism. This combined with an understanding that each social class were seen to have their own ideology. These were ideas that advanced the interests unrelated to the class position. Ideology was no longer implied falsehood and mystification, or stood in opposition to science.

For Heywood, ideology was developed furthest by Antonio Gramsci: “Gramsci argued that the capitalist class system is upheld not simply by unequal economic and political power, but by what he termed the ‘hegemony’ of bourgeois ideas and theories. Hegemony means leadership and domination and, in the sense of ideological hegemony, it refers to the capacity of bourgeois ideas to displace rival views and become, in effect, the common sense of the age.” Gramsci argued that ideology is embedded at every level through society, in its culture and language. Gramsci believed that bourgeois hegemony needed to be challenged at the political and intellectual level through the creation of ‘proletarian hegemony’ [2].

The Frankfurt School, a group of German neo-Marxists analysed that ability of capitalism to maintain stability by manufacturing legitimacy. Herbert Marcuse, argued that “advanced industrial society has developed a ‘totalitarian’ character in the capacity of its ideology to manipulate thought and deny expression to oppositional views.”[3]


Non-Marxist concepts of Ideology

A German sociologist Karl Mannheim attempted to develop a non-Marxist concept of ideology. Heywood describes how he agreed with Marx that people’s ideas are shaped by their social circumstances but did not view ideology in negative terms: “Mannheim portrayed ideologies as thought systems that serve to defend a particular social order, and that broadly express the interests of its dominant or ruling group. Utopias, on the other hand, are idealized representations of the future that imply the need for radical social change, invariably serving the interests of oppressed or subordinate groups.” Mannheim distinguished between ‘particular’ and ‘total’ ideologies: ‘particular’ are the ideas and beliefs of individuals, groups and parties, with ‘total’ ideologies representing ‘world views’ of a social class or society, such as liberal capitalism or Marxism [4].

For Heywood, in the 1950s and 1960s the term ‘ideology’ was used in a highly restrictive manner, to describe oppressive systems of rule such as fascism and communism in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. These ideologies were seen to be ‘closed’ systems of thought, which claimed a monopoly of truth and refused to tolerate opposing ideas.

The conservative concept of ideology is based on a distrust of abstract principles and philosophies, due to a skeptical attitude towards rationalism and progress. The world is seen as too complex for the human mind to understand. Therefore, ideology is seen as dogmatic, with fixed or doctrinaire beliefs that are divorced from the complexities of the real world. Conservatives rejected ideology in favour of pragmatism, that looks to experience and history as the best guide to human behaviour. This changed with the hijacking of conservatism by the the highly ideological politics of the new right [5].


Defining Ideology

Since the 1960s the term ‘ideology’ has become a neutral and objective concept and can be viewed as an ‘action-oriented system of thought’. Disagreements have persisted over the social role and political significance of ideology. Heywood lists the following meanings that have been attached to ideology:

  • a political belief system
  • an action-orientated set of political ideas
  • the ideas of the ruling class
  • the world view of a particular social class or social group
  • political ideas that embody or articulate class or social interests
  • ideas that propagate false consciousness amongst the exploited or oppressed
  • ideas that situate the individual within a social context and generate a sense of collective belonging
  • an officially sanctioned set of ideas used to legitimize a political system or regime
  • an all-embracing political doctrine that claims a monopoly of truth
  • an abstract and highly systematic set of political ideas[6]

Heywood defines ideology to be understood as:

“An ideology is a more or less coherent set of ideas that provides the basis for organizing political action, whether this is intended to preserve, modify or overthrow the existing system of power. All ideologies therefore have the following feature:

  1. a) They offer an account of the existing order, usually in the form of a ‘world view’.
  2. b) They advance a model of a desired future, a vision of the ‘good society’.
  3. c) They explain how political change can should be brought about – how to get from (a) to (b).”

For Heywood this definition is “entirely in line with the social-scientific usage of the term.” And that this definition illustrates the complexity of ideology because it brings about two kinds of synthesis. The first fuses understanding and commitment, so ideology blurs the distinction between what ‘is’ and what ‘should be’. The second synthesis is the fusion of political thought/theory and political practice/action [7].

Heywood states that ideologies can be seen as ‘regimes of truth’, by providing “a language of political discourse, a set of assumptions and presuppositions about how society does and should work, ideology structures both what we think and how we act.” He links ideology to power: “in a world of competing truths, values and theories, ideologies seek to prioritize certain values over others, and to invest legitimacy in particular theories or sets of meanings.” Heywood sees ideologies as providing intellectual maps of the social world, that establish relationships between individuals and groups verses the larger structure of power. They therefore play an essential role in maintaining the current power structure as fair and natural, or in challenging it by highlighting its injustices and pointing out the benefits of alternative power structures [8].


Ideology and the Political Spectrum

Heywood explains that political ideology developed from the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism. The earliest or ‘classical’ ideological traditions – liberalism, conservatism and socialism – developed as competing attempts to shape industrial society. During the nineteenth century, ideologies gained a clearer doctrinal character to become associated with a particular social class – liberalism for the middle class, conservatism for the aristocracy, and socialism for the working class. This resulted in political parties developing to represent the interests of these classes. The parties developed political programmes, resulting in a battle between two rival economic philosophies: capitalism and socialism. Political ideology therefore has a strong economic focus. This is described as the left/right divide and illustrated by the linear political spectrum.

Heywood describes how the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, date back to the French Revolution and the seating arrangements adopted by the political groups at the first meeting of the Estates-General in 1789. Those that sat on the left supported equality and common ownership, and support for meritocracy and private ownership was on the right [9].


Left <—————————————————————————————> Right

Communism      Socialism        Liberalism       Conservation    Fascism



Classical and New Ideologies

Heywood lists the ‘classical’ ideologies to be: liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, anarchism, fascism, and the ‘new’ ideologies to be: feminism, green ideology, multiculturalism, islamism. He describes how the ‘new’ ideologies have roots that stretch back until the nineteenth century and have been given “particular areas of ideological debate a prominence they never previously enjoyed and, in the process, they have fostered the emergence of fresh and challenging ideological perspective.” [10]

Heywood lists three reasons why this process of ideological transformation has occurred. The first is the transition from industrial societies to postindustrial societies. He describes the shift from societies with clear class divisions to more affluent societies with more of a focus on issue and identity politics. He also a describes a shift from societies with ‘thick’ social bonds based on social class and nationality to postindustrial societies with ‘thinner’ and more fluid social bonds. This results in people having a less clear idea of who they are and where they stand on moral and social issues.

The second is the collapse of communism and the changing world order. He describes that since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, nationalism and religious fundamentalism have been on the rise. He describes how the 9/11 attacks and resulting ‘war on terror’ show the “emergence of new ideological battle lines that, some believe, may define global politics in the twenty-first century.”

The third reason is globalization and transnationalism. Heywood describes how globalization has influenced the development of political ideologies in a number of ways: the collapse of communism, undermined political nationalism (although this trend is now being reversed), strengthened multiculturalism, the spread of capitalism economy has generated a range of oppositional forces such as the spread of religious fundamentalism and anti-globalization/anti-capitalist movements.

Heywood lists three broad ways that the ‘new’ ideologies differ from the ‘classical’ ideologies’. The first is that there has been a shift away from economics towards culture. Liberalism, conservatism and socialism were mainly concerned with economic organization, their “moral vision was grounded in a particular economic model.” The ‘new’ ideologies are more concerned with people’s values, beliefs and ways of life. Second, there has been a shift from social class to identity, resulting in political activism becoming more a lifestyle choice. Finally there has been a shift from universalism to particularism. Socialism and liberalism shared a belief that there is “a common core to human identity shared by people everywhere; the ‘new’ ideologies…stress the importance of factors such as gender, locality, culture and ethnicity. In that sense, they practise the ‘politics of difference’ rather than the politics of universal emancipation.” [11]

In the next post I will summarise the key aspects of the ‘classical’ ideologies, plus feminism. In a future post I will summarise the remaining ‘new’ ideologies.



  1. Political Ideologies : An Introduction by Andrew Heywood, 4th edition, 2007, page 6/7
  2. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 7
  3. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 8
  4. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 8/9
  5. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 10
  6. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 5
  7. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 11-13
  8. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 15
  9. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 16
  10. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 18
  11. Heywood, Political Ideologies, page 18-21