Political Ideologies

            Political ideologies are bodies of thought that differ in important respects from political theory or political philosophy. One of the objects of the study of ideologies is to define a concept of ideology and thus to be able to distinguish ideology from theory or philosophy. Not all students of ideology define it or even approach it the same way. The following are some concepts that may be helpful. Consider each of the theoretical works that you read in light of these different sets of characteristics.

1. In Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1956; Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001), Volume One of Eric Voegelin’s magnum opus, Order and History, he made the following observations, which establish the ultimate problem and context for the study of ideology, as well as of philosophy:


“God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being. The community with its quaternarian structure is, and is not, a datum of human experience. It is a datum of experience in so far as it is known to man by virtue of his participation in the mystery of being. It is not a datum of experience in so far as it is not given in the manner of an object of the external world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.” (Introduction, p. 1)


“Ideology is existence in rebellion against God and man. It is the violation of the First and Tenth Commandments, if we want to use the language of the Israelite order; it is the nosos, the disease of the spirit, if we want to use the language of Aeschylus and Plato. Philosophy is the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order. The Logos of being is the object proper of philosophic inquiry; and the search for truth concerning the order of being cannot be conducted without diagnosing the modes of existence in untruth. The truth of order has to be gained and regained in the perpetual struggle against the fall from it; and the movement toward truth starts from a man’s awareness of his existence in untruth. The diagnostic and therapeutic functions are inseparable in philosophy as a form of existence. And ever since Plato, in the disorder of his time, discovered the connection, philosophical inquiry has been one of the means of establishing islands of order in the disorder of the age.” (Preface, p. xiv)

2. From Kramnick and Watkins, The Age of Ideology: Political Thought, 1750 to the Present, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1979).

Frederick Watkins introduced his study of a broad array of political ideologies by identifying five distinctive characteristics of ideology:

1.     political ideologies have been based on the revolutionary conviction that life here on earth is capable of being perfected by human knowledge and action;

2.     ideologies self-consciously evoke "the people" as the ultimate beneficiary of progress and ideological victory;

3.     the goals to which modern ideologies address themselves are typically utopian and apocalyptic;

4.     ideologists habitually think in the simplified terms of a struggle between "us" and "them," friend and enemy;

5.     until the end of the nineteenth century, and to some extent even now, successful ideological movements have derived much of their strength from the extreme optimism of their views regarding human progress.

3. From Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, rev.ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Cohn studies European millenarian religious movements of the Middle Ages because of the similarities that he noted between those movements and the Twentieth Century political movements of Nazism and Communism. He found that millenarian sects and movements always picture salvation as:

1.     collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

2.     terrestrial (or immanent), in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly (transcendent) heaven;

3.     imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

4.     total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;

5.     miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.

4. From Eric Voegelin, "Ersatz Religion," in Science, Politics and Gnosticism, in Modernity without Restraint, ed. Manfred Henningsen (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000).

Eric Voegelin's Six Characteristics of Gnostic Mass Movements:

1.     The gnostic is dissatisfied with his situation.

2.     The gnostic believes that the drawbacks of the situation can be attributed to the fact that the world is intrinsically poorly organized.

3.     The gnostic believes that salvation from evil of the world is possible.

4.     The gnostic believes that the order of being will have to be changed in an historical process.

5.     The gnostic believes that a change in the order of being lies in the realm of human action and that this salvational act is possible through man's own effort.

6.     The gnostic seeks out a prescription for the structural change in the order of being. The knowledge or gnosis of the method of altering being is the central concern. Thus the gnostic constructs a formula for self and world salvation and is ready to come forward as a prophet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind.


These six characteristics describe the essence of the modern gnostic attitude, according to Voegelin in an essay written in the 1960s. Note that Voegelin's concept of gnosticism as it appears in the modern world is not a simple transfer of the characteristics of the ancient Gnostic religion, which did not maintain that the order of being in this world can be changed by human effort. Rather, as explained in his New Science of Politics (also in the Modernity without Restraint collection), the essence of gnostic attitude is the need for certainty--the need to get a firmer "grip on God" than Christian faith can provide. "Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity," says Voegelin, and man has a difficult time dealing with it, so he latches onto something intellectually, emotionally, or volitionally that brings the transcendence of the Christian God and of its promised heavenly end (the eschaton or last things) for man into this world: the "eschaton is immanentized." The last three characteristics of Voegelin’s concept of "gnostic mass movements" should be compared with the characteristics of Hermeticism as described, for example, by Stephen A. McKnight in Sacralizing the Secular. Several of the characteristics seem more Hermeticist than Gnostic.

5. From Kenneth Minogue, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, 2d ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2008; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 2007).

Minogue says that his "argument . . . is an exploration of the hypothesis that there is a pure theory of ideology, and while from one point of view it is a critique, from another it is a do-it-yourself ideology kit." In the course of the first two chapters, Minogue says that ideology is:

1.     a doctrine about the systematic basis of the world's evils, particularly oppression;

2.     the propensity to construct structural explanations of the human world;

3.     the belief that everything that happens is explicable in terms of the relevant structure; hence mistakes and excesses [of ideological regimes] are logically impossible;

4.     an inspirational message calling upon people to take up the struggle for liberation;

5.     a philosophical type of allegiance purporting to transcend family, religion, or native hearth, and its essence lies in struggle: the world is a battlefield;

6.     a form of theoretical conscription: everyone, by virtue of class, sex, race, or nation, is smartly uniformed and assigned to one side or the other.

"So far then, an ideology is a purportedly scientific doctrine which reveals the secret of the human condition. It is associated with a specific class of persons nominated as the bearers or the motor of history. The ideologist presents himself as the mouthpiece of this entity. The set of doctrines which in a commonsense way we should have to regard as having been composed by men like Marx and Engels on the basis of the education they had received are explained, within the system, as the coming to consciousness of a new class of people."

6. From Gerhart Niemeyer, in Between Nothingness and Paradise (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971; repub. St. Augustine's Press, 1997).

Niemeyer used different terms to approach the nature of ideological thought. He looks at social or political theories (using the term "theory" here in its loosest sense) that propose a "total critique," a total rejection, of existing society.

Building on two ideas suggested by Voegelin in the New Science of Politics, who in turn borrowed them from Ernst Troeltsch, Niemeyer identifies two distinct prospects from which nihilistic critics of existing society launch their attacks. One type of critique, that of “archetypal socialism,” is based on an "underlying 'natural' order of human existence which is hidden and buried under the existing 'false' order of politics." This axiological critique, based upon the "true" natural order allegedly discovered by the critic but in truth existing only in his imagination, calls for the total destruction of society and culture in the name of a novus ordo that "has no actuality anywhere. It cannot be experienced." Niemeyer identifies this critique in the writings of the eighteenth century French radicals and socialists.

The main characteristics of this archetypal pattern of total critique are as follows:

(1) "The total critique of society is rooted in theological or ontological revolution, be it a rejection of God or goodness, at least experienceable goodness."

(2) "This particular pattern of 'total critique' is characteristically ahistorical and antihistorical."

(3) "This particular pattern of total critique invokes as its title the perfection of a logical construct concerning social order."

(4) "The content of the 'value' invoked as revolutionary justification goes under the name of 'nature[,]' which connotes social order beyond good and evil, be it the order of labor or the order of natural passions."

(5) "The 'value' of nature appears wholly alien to human existence and experience in history. It can be grasped only by virtue of a specific and secret knowledge made manifest by the thinker as a messenger."

(6) "The secret knowledge, once it takes hold of the masses, will of itself cause the historical world of law and order to come crashing down."

Proponents of a second type of total critique view contemporary society and culture from the perspective of the future: a "telos of future value serves as the Archimedean point from which the world of present and past experience is lifted off its hinges." The "future value" of this teleological critique is as impossible to experience as the imaginary order of nature in the axiological critiques. Niemeyer identifies this critique in particular with Turgot, Condorcet, and Fourier. Marx, says Niemeyer, melded both axiological and teleological perspectives into his total critique.

This teleological pattern of critique is more complex and not as superficially logical as the axiological pattern. Its main features are as follows:

(1) "History," generally, "is construed as a necessary process resulting from 'natural' (i.e., nonintelligent) causes, a process which, by means of evolution or revolution, moves through a series of 'phases' or 'stages' of social order."

(2) "The speculative view of this process includes not merely the 'laws' of change but also an ultimate goal of the entire process."

(3) "The crucial and by no means logical point in the process-oriented outlook is the attribution of sole value to the goal phase of history."

(4) "As one attributes value only to the goal stage of the historical process, all stages other than the ultimate stand condemned of inherent imperfection, unvalue, or unreality."

(5) "Not logically, but rather gratuitously, the present age or society is frequently seen as the extreme antithesis to the future, so that it can be construed as an age of total alienation."

(6) "The value of the goal stage of the entire process cannot be construed as the good of now living men or societies nor as that of past generations."

(7) "As history is the 'becoming' process occasioned by causative 'laws,' the knowledge of these laws not only discloses the ultimate destination of mankind but also is instrumental in history's forward motion."

7. From Noel O'Sullivan, Fascism (London, J.M. Dent, 1983).

O'Sullivan contrasts the ideological or "activist" style of politics to the non-ideological "limited" style, which is tied to the development of liberal democracy and the modern concept of the state. He notes four key differences between the two styles regarding the characteristics of the state:

1.     Limited Style: law is the bond of the community

Activist Style: a shared "mission" or ideology is the legitimate basis of community

2.     Limited: public life is distinguished from private life, the state is distinguished from society (a distinction that he attributes to the Christian tradition)

Activist: public life and private life are fused; human destiny is always a collective destiny

3.     Limited: power is regarded with suspicion, and stress is laid upon institutional safeguards

Activist: power, when it is enabling the community to accomplish its mission, is not suspect and should not be restrained

4.     Limited: the state is generally a territorial unit

Activist: the territorial aspect is incidental; the community is bound by an ideology, a shared mission

8. From Roy Macridis, Contemporary Political Ideologies (Cambridge, Mass.: Winthrop Pub., 1980); 2d ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983).

Macridis in particular tries to distinguish political ideologies from political theories and political philosophies. His summary of the differences changed slightly between the first and second editions of his book.

To summarize then: an ideology consists of a set of ideas and beliefs through which we perceive the outside world and act upon our information. It is a medium through which we try to learn and comprehend the world; but it also generates emotions which hold people together. Finally, ideologies are action-oriented. That is, they consist of ideas shared by many people who act in unison and who are influenced to act in unison in order to accomplish posited ends. . . . What separates theory or philosophy from ideology is that while the first two involve contemplation, organization of ideas and whenever possible demonstration, ideology incites people to action. (From 1st edition, pp. 4-5.)

An ideology, then, is a set of ideas and beliefs held by a number of people. It spells out what is valued and what is not, what must be maintained and what must be changed, and it shapes accordingly the attitudes of those who share it. In contrast to philosophy and theory, which are concerned with knowledge and understanding, ideologies relate to social and political behavior and action. They incite people to action and provide the basic framework for political action. (From 2d edition, p. 9)