Dr. Jim L. Riley

Regis University

Denver, CO


Why Study Political Ideologies?

The answer to this question is quite simple. Students of politics are concerned about and interested in the various principles of that intellectual discipline. It may never be known conclusively whether humans alone are capable of formulating and then utilizing abstract ideas to govern their behavior. None can dispute however that ideas about politics constitute a most important element in that realm.

Nelson Mandella, imprisoned for twenty years for his advocacy of racial equality in South Africa, was possessed of an idea about politics. The leader of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, planned for years during his exile near Paris, to return to his homeland with a plan of purification and change to a pure Islamic state. College students joining together in a march to protest college policies regarding ROTC programs have some motivating idea behind their actions.

While ideas are not in and of themselves ideologies, they are part of the raw material needed to produce a full fledged ideology. As will be seen below ideologies have special qualities that set them apart from other political entities. When combined with other factors such as effective leadership, persuasive rationale', timely development, and popular appeal political ideology goes a considerable distance in the direction of comprehending things political. Nature of Political Ideologies Ideas have been called "immaculate perceptions" of an imperfect reality. This may also be applicable to the concept of political ideologies.

At least from the time of Classical Greece to the present thoughtful individuals have attempted to devise concepts regarding the nature of politics. These ideas have concerned political reality as it is perceived (descriptive observations), as it ought to be (normative observations), and some have gone so far as to suggest methods for altering reality in order to achieve the desired goal (prescriptive observations). Aristotle attempted to describe the political structures that existed in his era by constructing a trichotomy of types with two variations of each:

This rudimentary but astute design constitutes a set of concepts regarding politics but falls short of what is termed "ideology."

Whereas ideas about politics may range from the simple to the extraordinarily complex, ideologies occupy a special niche of these "immaculate perceptions." At their very core ideologies offer a means to understand, explain and to change political reality. There are, in other words, descriptive, prescriptive, and normative elements in political ideologies.

Sometimes hidden within these elements are assumptions about the fundamental nature of human beings, their proper relationship to one another, the ultimate destiny and purpose of life itself, man kind's place in the grand scheme of things, the existence of principles of justice beyond those created by man, and in general stated or unstated presumptions of a most basic nature. Discovering, analyzing and challenging these elements of ideologies will enable the thoughtful student an opportunity to discover within him/her self values and beliefs that were theretofore only dimly realized.

Of equal importance is the developed ability to thoughtfully critique ideologies that otherwise might go by the wayside without being understood correctly. Characteristics of Political Ideologies Political ideologies have a number of characteristics that distinguish them from other related concepts. At the outset they constitute a rather comprehensive set of interrelated views on the nature of politics both as it is and as it should be.

As with most, if not all, human concepts, ideologies are derived from perceptions about reality and quite often from opinions about perceived problems in the human condition. It is perhaps in the nature of a significant number of human beings to be continuously dissatisfied with existent conditions. For some the answers to noted injustices lie in the relationship of mankind to God or to some other entity larger than ourselves. For others the faults are found not in the stars but in ourselves. These are the ones who may then devise political ideologies.

Frequently an ideology is initially the product of a single individual working in splendid isolation. Perhaps the best known if not a perfect example of this would be Karl Marx working for years in the archives of the London Museum. His observations led him to the conclusion that great injustices (and ultimately historical imbalances) existed that were inevitably doomed to destruction by the inexorable forces present in human society, particularly found in the process called dialectic materialism and economic determinism. Seldom, it seems, are ideologies initially produced as a consequence of group effort. It must be recognized however that the product of one person's thoughtful reflections on the political dimensions of the human condition necessarily encompass and build on the work of preceding commentators.

Marx's debt to the Hegelian dialectic is widely recognized. Hegel's own intellectual advancements were based in considerable measure on traditions of Aristotelianism present in German intellectual traditions for centuries.

The second characteristic of political ideologies has already been suggested: they are produced by intellectual elites. Only those individuals with the necessary interests and skills (intellectual and communicative) are capable of devising comprehensive analyses of politics. Although any particular ideology may be modified and more completely developed with the involvement of many people over considerable periods of time, there is more often than not a single individual who may be correctly viewed as the founder if not the ultimate creator of that ideology.

Invariably the ideas of this creative individual are published in some form and disseminated among other potentially sympathetic individuals. On occasion, such as in the development of Nazism, rhetorical development may precede written elaboration. Adolph Hitler did not put on paper his hate filled views until some four years after the Nazi party had commenced its campaign to achieve power in post-World War I Germany. Dissemination and propagation of the ideology among the mass population constitutes a most important third element in political ideologies, at least of those that become forces in the world.

As long as an ideology remains only of interest to a very few intellectuals, it is unlikely to become an agent of great change in society. At this point an ideology becomes attached to what may be called a "movement." Movements in politics by definition involve large numbers of people. These numbers seldom constitute a majority of the adult population but may involve millions of people at one time or another.

Feminism, as an example, is viewed by some as an ideology and by others as a movement. It may also be seen as an amalgam of each. It should be noted however that there have been instances when a social theory that had political implications became accepted by both political and intellectual elites but had no wide spread public following nevertheless produced important governmental policies For example, what was termed "Social Darwinism" did in the United States have very significant policy implications for the United States Supreme Court in a variety of its decisions in the latter part of the 19th Century. Despite the fact that "Social Darwinism" was never propagated widely among any large numbers of people and certainly did not become a "movement" it did provide intellectual justification for a "hands off" or laissez faire array of policies of United States governments.

Contrary to popular belief political ideologies are not fixed or static but are subject to changes, sometimes of a fundamental nature. "Revisionism" may be viewed as a curse by purists or as necessary refinements by those recognizing the imperfections in the original idea. Changes may be resultant from reasoned critiques of the initial set of concepts or they may flow from the clash of the initial concepts with a reality that simply cannot be reconciled with the ideology.

Lenin, for example, was forced by the reality of the continuation of the capitalistic states to devise the theory of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism. This "modification" of Marx was an attempt to explain why the initial predictions of continuing accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and increasingly intolerable poverty for the workers did not come about in the manner that Marx indicated. Similarly Mao Zedong found it imperative to adapt Marx to the special conditions in China in order to utilize communist ideology in that setting. A fifth trait of ideologies concerns their susceptibility to oversimplification and distortion.

Political concepts often times are quite complex and require, if they are to be understood thoroughly, extensive study, thoughtful qualifications, limited application, time frame containment and a host of other delimiters. For those who wish to use the ideology as a vehicle to obtain change in politics and society these "fine points" may be impediments to obtaining popular support. In the name of political expediency slogans may replace concepts, rallying cries may drown out qualifications, and what emerges is far from the essence of the original set of ideas.

This distortion of the original ideology brings forth the final characteristic needing elaboration. This concerns the relationship of ideology to the political movement that frequently develops as a consequence of the ideology itself. This extension of an ideology into the realm of political action gives a whole new dimension to the original set of concepts. At this point the ideology becomes a powerful motivator of individual and group behavior. The oversimplifications and distortions mentioned above enable movement leaders to develop emotional appeal for the goals of the ideology. This emotional commitment on the part of members of the movement is a powerful force of change in the world of politics.

Eric Hoffer, in his eminently readable and insightful book THE TRUE BELIEVER spot lighted how belief in a cause may produce one of the most formidable and elemental powers in human affairs: the fanatic. Such "true believers" in the cause, in the movement, in the ideas have no reason whatsoever to leave undone anything that would produce the desired end. Their property, their very lives (and those of anyone else) are all of secondary importance to the CAUSE.

The role of leadership is critical in this phase of the transformation of an ideology into a movement. Often the individual or individuals who were responsible for the ideology find themselves supplanted by firebrands, organizers, and spellbinding speakers who pay lip service to the founders but care little for the ratio decidendi in the concepts so dear to those who made the initial intellectual contributions. Lenin is reported to have once asserted that what communism meant for the Soviet Union was a means to rapid industrialization and its attending political/military/economic power. It has been noted with probable accuracy that Marx would have been surprised and possibly appalled at the manner in which his concepts of Communism had been implemented by Lenin, Stalin, the Khimer Rouge and other individuals and groups claiming the mantle of Communist.

Having now examined some of the more important aspects of political ideologies in general, a review of selected examples is in order. Those chosen here represent the primary ideological developments in the political realm but by no means constitute the whole of the spectrum. First there will be considered what have traditionally been referred to as "moderate" ideologies. Following this will be the more "extreme" varieties and then an overview of unfolding political viewpoints that may evolve into full blown ideologies.