Definition, Meaning, History, Features and Examples of ideology


Definition, Meaning, History, Features and Examples of  ideology

Meaning and Definition of an Ideology

Ideologies were made necessary due to the challenges of the Age of Enlightenment when people believed they could improve their conditions by taking positive action instead of passively accepting life as it came. Prior to the modern era, people were discouraged from seeking solutions to their problems. Politics had not yet become democratized. Ordinary people were not allowed to participate in the political system. Politics was reserved for the kings heading a small ruling class. But this view changed with the democratization of politics, and the social and economic upheavals that accompanied the Industrial Revolution (Baradat 2000).

Political scientists do not agree on the exact definition of the term ideology. Frederick Watkins suggests that ideology comes almost entirely from the political extremes. Ideologies, he argues are always opposed to the status quo. They propose an abrupt change in the existing order; thus, they are usually militant, revolutionary and violent. In his view, most ideologies are stated in simplistic terms, utopian in their objective and usually display great faith in the potentiality of man for finding success and happiness.

Karl Marx argues that ideology is nothing more than a fabrication used by ruling class to justify their rule over the masses. Therefore, the dominant political ideas, or ideology of any society would always reflect the interests of the ruling classes, which according to him, were based on incorrect interpretation of the nature of politics. L.T Sarget argues, that ideologies are based on the value systems of various societies, and provides the believer with the picture of the world both as it is and as it should be.

Although these definitions differ in their emphasis, they all have enough in common to allow for broader understanding of the meaning of ideology. Ideology is primarily a political term, though it can be applied to other contexts.

Second, ideology consists of a view of the present and a vision of the future. The preferred future is presented as a materialistic improvement over the present. This desirable future is often attainable, according to the ideology, within a single lifetime. As a result, one of the outstanding features of an ideology is its offer of hope.

Third, ideology is action oriented. It not only describes reality and offers a better future, but most important, it gives specific directions, about steps that must be taken to achieve this goal.

Fourth, ideology is directed at the masses (Baradat; 2000). For example, Karl Marx, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler directed their ideologies to the masses in their countries. In order to appeal to the masses, ideologies are usually couched in motivational forms. 

In a simple language, ideologies are the set of ideas from which the individual perceives himself; a set of ideas that lay down rules of correct behavior and provides a justification for the behaviour of the citizens; the purpose and ideals of society, the direction in which the nation is going and the norms and values to be upheld in changing circumstances within the life of the nations would be embraced in the national ideology.


Meaning of Political Ideology

Political ideology is a usual of ideas, beliefs, values, and opinions, exhibiting a recurring pattern, that competes deliberately as well as accidentally over providing plans of action for public policy making in an attempt to justify, explain, contest, or change the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community.

Political ideology is an intelligible set of views on politics and the role of the government and encompasses a wide range of issues. Eighteenth century, Antoine Destutt de Tracy is often credited with first employing the term ideology in the late 18th century. By ideology Tracy meant a “science of the formation of ideas,” which, in line with prevailing enlightenment aspirations, he believed could promote social progress and the common good. The meanings have shifted over time and often make sense in context of the political struggles through which they emerged. Ideology is excessively used in interpretation, formulation and functioning of many state's political systems.

A political ideology emphases on the political system wherein societies make decisions about their most important values or as Easton said “the authoritative allocation of values” for a society is made.


Development of Ideology

Most ideologies owe their origin and gradual developed to some social movements that took place in in a society. Be that modern democracy in the seventeenth century, Marxism and anarchism in the nineteenth century, and fascism and National Socialism, feminism, Liberation Theology in last century and environmentalism, PanIslamism or Globalism in recent decades. Ideologies provide the apparatus through which variety of issues are interpreted and explained to make meanings for its adherents.


Origins of Ideology

The word first made its appearance in French as idéologie at the time of the French Revolution, when it was introduced by a philosopher, A.-L.-C. Destutt de Tracy, as a short name for what he called his “science of ideas,” which he claimed to have adapted from the epistemology of the philosophers John Locke and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, for whom all human knowledge was knowledge of ideas.  The fact is, however, that he owed rather more to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, whom he revered no less than did the earlier French philosophers of the Enlightenment.  It was Bacon who had proclaimed that the destiny of science was not only to enlarge man's knowledge but also to “improve the life of men on earth,” and it was this same union of the programmatic with the intellectual that distinguished Destutt de Tracy's idéologie from those theories, systems, or philosophies that were essentially explanatory.  The science of ideas was a science with a mission; it aimed at serving men, even saving them, by ridding their minds of prejudice and preparing them for the sovereignty of reason.

Destutt de Tracy and his fellow idéologues devised a system of national education that they believed would transform France into a rational and scientific society.  Their teaching combined a fervent belief in individual liberty with an elaborate program of state planning, and for a short time under the Directory (1795) it became the official doctrine of the French Republic.  Napoleon at first supported Destutt de Tracy and his friends, but he soon turned against them, and in December 1812 he even went so far as to attribute blame for France's military defeats to the influence of the idéologues, of whom he spoke with scorn.

Thus ideology has been from its inception a word with a marked emotive content, though Destutt de Tracy presumably had intended it to be a dry, technical term.  Such was his own passionate attachment to the science of ideas, and such was the high moral worth and purpose he assigned to it, that the word idéologie was bound to possess for him a strongly laudatory character.  And equally, when Napoleon linked the name of idéologie with what he had come to regard as the most detestable elements in Revolutionary thought, he invested the same word with all of his feelings of disapprobation and mistrust.  Ideology was, from this time on, to play this double role of a term both laudatory and abusive not only in French but also in German, English, Italian, and all the other languages of the world into which it was either translated or transliterated.

Some historians of philosophy have called the 19th century the age of ideology, not because the word itself was then so widely used, but because so much of the thought of the time can be distinguished from that prevailing in the previous centuries by features that would now be called ideological.  Even so, there is a limit to the extent to which one can speak today of an agreed use of the word.  The subject of ideology is a controversial one, and it is arguable that at least some part of this controversy derives from disagreement as to the definition of the word ideology.  One can, however, discern both a strict and a loose way of using it.  In the loose sense of the word, ideology may mean any kind of action-oriented theory or any attempt to approach politics in the light of a system of ideas.  


Features of Ideology

Ideology in the stricter sense stays fairly close to Destutt de Tracy's original conception and may be identified by five characteristics:

1. It contains an explanatory theory of a more or less comprehensive kind about human experience and the external world.

2. It sets out a program, in generalized and abstract terms, of social and political organization.

3. It conceives the realization of this program as entailing a struggle.

4. It seeks not merely to persuade but to recruit loyal adherents, demanding what is sometimes called commitment.

5. It addresses a wide public but may tend to confer some special role of leadership on intellectuals.  

In this page, the noun ideology is used only in its strict sense; the adjective ideological is used to refer to ideology as broadly defined. On the basis of the five features above, then, one can recognize as ideologies systems as diverse as destutt de Tracy's own science of ideas, the Positivism of the French philosohher Auguste Comte, Communism and several other types of Socialism, Fascism, Nazism, and kind nationalism. that all these "isms" belong to the 19th or 20th century may suggest that ideologies are no older than the word itself, that they belong essentially to a period in which secular belief has increasingly replace traditional religious faith.


Some World Influential Ideologies


According to Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Socialism is an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism. Socialism is not only an economic system, but a movement and a complex ideology embracing social, political, and moral philosophy.

Socialism has three basic features:

a. Public ownership of the means of production

b. Distribution and finance.

c. The establishment of a welfare state and a socialist intent.

Socialism seeks to extend its activities to all undertakings with the objective of promoting equality and social welfare. It desires expansion of state activities not for personal gain but to assure freedom and justice to the individual. In order to achieve this lofty goal, planning is central to socialism. The traditional way to socialize an economy is by nationalization. Nevertheless, because of the problems associated with nationalization, socialists are wary of adopting this measure. Another problem with nationalism is that it has been discovered that some industries are best run and most productive when left with the private sector.

Apart from production, another equally important relevant issue to a socialist society is the distribution of goods and service. The introduction of the New Deal in the 1930s in by President Delano Roosevelt of USA despite being a capitalist state was one major attempt to even out the distribution of wealth in favor of the poor. However, unlike communism, socialism is not completely egalitarian; it merely attempts to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. While it recognizes individual differences, which account for differences in status, Socialism seeks to eliminate poverty and to assure reasonable and comfortable life for the citizens. The motto of socialism is “from each according to his ability and to each according to his deed.”

The principle of socialist intent set the goal of making the citizens free from material dependence. Since the condition of scarcity under capitalism makes people to compete acutely, under socialism co-operation is expected to replace competition. The replacement of competition with co-operation in the machine age after the Industrial Revolution, the theory posits will lead to greater productivity, and disappearance of class differences, as well as the elimination of tensions within the society. In some respects, one can say that socialism is also compatible with democracy, since it is to the individual economically what democracy is to the individual politically. Socialism is therefore the economic equivalent of democracy.

According to Harold Laski, “Socialism is the logical conclusion of democracy” (cited in Baradat, 2000). It is well known that money is a major source of political power. Thus, J. J Rousseau argued that an economic system that distributes wealth more evenly would enhance the practice of democracy.

The major problem with socialism is that it has many variants. There is the scientific socialism, which strictly followed the doctrinaire exposition of Marx and Engels. The difference in interpretation, and the alleged shift from the original socialist dogma in the practice of the ideology in the former Soviet Union and China was one reason for the historic Sino-Soviet rift in 1950s. The Utopian socialism of Saint Simon and Robert Owen is also different from the Marxian approach because it sought to achieve socialist end through peaceful means. In the early days of African independence, some African leaders, notably, President Nyerere of Tanzania and, and President Kaunda of Zambia toyed with the idea of African socialism, which they called Ujaama and Humanism respectively. In Nigeria, Chief Awolowo equally advocated Democratic Socialism. Because of this lack of unanimity of view about socialism as an ideology, it is not unusual to hear people say: not all socialist are Marxists, but all Marxists are socialists. Before 1991, socialist countries in the world included many countries such as East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, largely, if not mainly in Eastern Europe.



The rudiments of capitalism were developed from Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hands” in his book, The Wealth of Nations, Smith (1776) advocated the principle of Laissez-Fare, which advocated that government should remain aloof of economic matters, but should rather allow the forces of demand and supply to direct the economy, thereby encouraging competition.

Therefore, competition is regarded as the engine of the capitalist system because it rested on the assumption that “the good of the whole is best served when each person pursues his or her own self-interest” (Baradat 2000).

Capitalism can therefore be defined as an economic system under which the ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the minor section of the society. According to Awolowo (1978:57-61) capitalism has four basic concepts: private property, choice, equality and egoistic altruism. Only the fourth component requires elaboration since the other three are self-explanatory. Egoistic-altruism or what Smith called the ‘invisible hands’ suggest that while pursing his economic interest, every individual unconsciously promote at the same time the economic interest of others.

Historically, capitalism developed after the collapse of the feudal system. Its springboard was the Industrial Revolution in 18th century England during which mechanization replaced human labor, which led to mass production of goods and services. Capitalism is also related to democracy since both emphasize freedom of choice and individualism, otherwise referred to as the survival of the fittest. Though capitalism originated in Europe, today the United States is regarded as the bastion of capitalism in the world. American capitalism reserves many of its greatest advantages with those with enough wealth to buy into the system. The adage “it takes money to make more money”, and indeed to acquire political power, including the presidency, in US is true of American capitalist society.

However, the problem with capitalism is that it is exploitative and corruptive. Capitalism punishes abundance and rewards scarcity, labor is not rewarded in value commensurate to its input, the poor and the rich are left at the mercy of the few, who are rich. By means of monopolies or oligopolies, the capitalists are able to subvert the economy of any state in order to promote their self-interest and to injure the interest of the masses. Because the capitalist system eschews the idea of central planning it is always faced with intermittent crises, alternating between prosperity and recession. Capitalism also promotes fierce division between the upper class and the lower class in the society, thereby encouraging the law of the jungle among men.

However, beginning with the introduction of the welfare system in Europe, and the New Deal under President F. D. Roosevelt in US, attempts have been made to moderate the evils of capitalism. Nevertheless, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the discredit suffered by the socialist alternative because of this, and the apparent triumph of capitalism, Francis Fukuyama perhaps prematurely proclaimed “the end of history.” He described the event as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy’ (Huntington 1996: 31). Since then other countries such as Russia and China, in Asia and Tanzania and Nigeria in Africa have either joined the capitalist bandwagon or grafted free market principles into their system, thereby swelling the rank of the capitalist bloc, led by the United States, Japan, Germany and Britain.



Communism is a social and political system based on the doctrine developed by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels in their book The Communist Manifesto written in 1848. Communism interprets history, as a relentless war between the wealthy, and those who have work to earn a living. It teaches that the economy is the foundations of societies while others: politics, religion etc, which they called the superstructure,

are determined by economic factor. The deep-seated conflict of interests between these two groups, they theorized, will lead to a class war between the oppressor and the oppressed class. In the end, the proletariat (the lower class) will emerge victorious, establish their hegemony and create a true socialist commonwealth. The communist reason that since history has shown that those who control power use it to perpetuate their dynasty, the democratic Utopia envisaged can only be attained through revolutionary or violent means (Azikwe, 1979). As a first step, a dictatorship of the proletariat will be installed to eliminate all differences before the state apparatus will disappear.

Under capitalism, the state is an instrument of arbitrary coercion and oppression and its executive “is but a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie”- in their ruthless exploitation of the working class. As the dictatorship directs the society towards the building of an egalitarian society, there will be more willingness of every man to work to his own capacity since the fruits of labor will be shared more equitably. As the state apparatus withers away, the communist slogan then becomes “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need”. However, contrary to the Marxian prediction, the Soviet Union, a non-capitalist country experienced socialist revolution in 1917. And for more than seven decades, until 1991, the Soviet Union remained a socialist state. Yet, it could be argued that Soviet experience did not approximate to genuine communism since the state structure did not “wither away” or disappear as predicted by Marx.

The reason for this is that Soviet Union never attained communism-the last and final stage of societal development. This was confirmed in 1961 when the Russian Communist Party declared that only socialism has been achieved, and in line with the view of the communist historian, Isaac Deutscher, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the beginning of the journey to communism (Watson 1993: 184). Under communism, the nation state system is distrusted because it developed along with capitalism. Marx argued that nation-states were organized by capitalists to create artificial separation from people who have a great deal in common, since according to him “working men have no country.” The socialists Internationalists predicted that as various countries adopt socialism or communism, the need to break the artificial barriers among states would be realized.

A major feature of communism is the dominance of a one party organization. The communist party in Soviet Union before 1991, for example, had a long tradition of obedience to decisions once made by the party’s hierarchy; while arguments could only be made about the interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, not about alternative to it. This arrangement complements the centrality of economic planning in such a way that nothing important is left to private enterprise. Communism also demand a strong bureaucracy and a considerable curtailment of freedom until the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 who introduced the ideas of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” to reform the practice of communism in the old Soviet Union, and which ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet-communist state and the abandonment of the ideology.

Since the collapse of Soviet Union, there have been attempts to discredit socialism and communism as alternative ideologies to capitalism. Though it is true that since the end of the Cold War, the socialist bloc has been in disarray, it is not conclusive that socialism has lost all its attractions, or is dead theoretically or politically. Presently, Cuba a Latin American country still believes in superiority of the socialist alternative, in spite of the determination of successive U.S.’s administrations since 1959, to undermine the Fidel (now Rao) Castro led government.


 An Appraisal of different Ideologies

Having explained the above, it is important that we appraise these ideologies in order to have an idea which of them is the most appropriate for adoption today in the world, or in your country.

First, an ideology suitable for a country is the type that its prescriptions have relevance for the peoples’ political, economic, legal and educational systems, as well as their social relations. For a post-colonial state like Nigeria, an ideology that will shake off the imperial vestiges inherent in the country’s educational system in such a way that its colonial orientation will give way to a development focused system.

An ideology that will wean the nation’s legal system from its colonial orientation, in such a way that it is no longer a rehash of English Common Law, but a body of laws reformed in consonance with national values and mores, including the substitution of archaic notion of capital punishment, with a more equitable, just and fair system which is aimed at correcting rather than punishing offenders. An ideology that will create an economic climate conducive to increase capacity utilization and human resources development, as well as bridge the gap between the very many, who are poor, and the very few, who are rich.

The experience of former Soviet Union, and the persistence of the contradictions within her socialist system, is a pointer to the fact that a wholesale technical embrace of an ideology alone is insufficient as a national panacea. We now know that contrary to Karl Max’s theoretical predictions, socialism did not lead to the withering away of the State. Mikhail Gorbachev’s resort to “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” was not only an act of desperation but also an open admission that the Soviet system was overdue for reforms. Yet the reforms, novel as it was for an already atrophied system could not stop communism from being taken for a capitalist shock therapy, until it was abandoned by the Soviets.

Like socialism or communism, and in spite of the outward veneer of resilience, capitalism has also not succeeded to overcome its inherent contradictions. What has kept it afloat, and safeguarded it from collapse, is the adoption by most capitalist countries of what Karl Popper in his book The Poverty of Historicism has termed “reformist measures.” This package is embodied in what is popularly known as welfare policies, such as unemployment benefits, old age-pensions, and state sponsored Medicare prevalent in capitalist Western European Countries. It alsopredates what Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe (1979) in his book Ideology for Nigeria christened Neo-Welfarism (Azikiwe 1977).

If we contrast Azikiwe’s “Neo-Welfarism” to Awolowo’s preference for “Democratic Socialism”, or Nkrumah’s “Scientific Socialism” or Nyerere’s “Ujaama”, it will, therefore, become clear that any discourse on ideology, is a pure academic or polemical exercise in dialectical dissent. We are not saying that ideology is not relevant simply because it is loaded with doctrinaire complications; but a more reasonable attitude is to embrace it with caution. Even before Karl Marx, the utopians Socialists such as Robert Owens and Saints Simon were divided. Joseph Proudhon, for instance, wrote Philosophy of Poverty, but Marx in bitter satiric reply wrote his famous Poverty of Philosophy. Yet both of them were espousing socialist thought. Karl popper’s Open Society and The Poverty of Historicism is perhaps until date, the most devastating assault on Marxism and the theory of dialectics.

While the facts of a given event can be objectively determined and agreed upon by all reasonable people, but where ideology comes in, the interpretation of these facts are influenced by subjective factors, personal beliefs and value judgments. If this is the case, the search for an appropriate ideology for any country should go beyond adopting or rejecting a particular ideology. A suitable ideology, therefore, must be deliberately conceived, and the citizens must be psychologically nurtured to accept and embrace it. In a multi-national country like Nigeria, the reconciliation of the primordial goals of the disparate groups, which make up the country, within the context of an overarching national framework must be the focus of an ideology.

The need for this harmonization of goals and interests become more imperative if we realize that the former imperial powers that brought these groups together, motivated by the expediency of colonial interest, adopted the policy of “Divide and Rule”, which tore these groups apart, rather than unite them. Azikiwe (1979) provided insight into how integration of these ideologies can be done through what he called an eclectic philosophy and the pragmatic approach. This is the only way a visionary leadership; supported by articulate citizenry can make a country attain the goals of socio-economic development and political stability, and not a strait jacket adoption of a national ideology.

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