The concept of ideology is generally considered to date from the early nineteenth century, when French theorists, the idéologues, sought through a science of ideas to discover truth and dissolve illusion. For the idéologues, ideology represented a neutral, scientific term. It soon, however, took on a more negative and even pejorative connotation. (The contemporary term "ideologue" derives from this history.) The nineteenth-century reaction against the French Revolution, which for conservatives represented Enlightenment rationalism taken to dangerous extremes, struck the first blow to ideology's reputation. But it was the work of a nineteenth-century revolutionary that truly sundered ideology from its rationalist beginnings.
For Karl Marx ideology had more to do with illusion than truth. In his best-known works, such as Capital, the German philosopher and revolutionary provides surprisingly little explanation of either the role or the nature of ideology. Yet Marx has had a lasting influence on the understanding of ideology. Marxist theory finds the determinants of social reality in material factors and especially in economic structures. Marx argued that human society was passing through a series of historical periods or stages. A different form of economic organization—feudalism, capitalism, and eventually communism—each with its own dominant class defined the various stages. And this is where ideology comes in: For Marx ideology served the interests of the dominant class, whether kings or merchants. Ideology acted as a camera obscura, to use one of his many metaphors for the concept, providing individuals with a distorted view of reality. The view through the camera obscura concealed the realities of class conflict that define social relationships. It created the alienation of workers in capitalist society and slowed the inexorable revolutionary progress toward the end of history, the communist utopia. Only Marxist theory, which offered a true vision of history, was free from ideological distortion.
Marx's views proved enduring. Although subsequent theorists further developed his ideas the outlines of his view remained largely unchanged, and ideology continued well into the twentieth century to be understood as an instrument to justify power. Lenin represents perhaps the most significant and influential of Marx's successors. To Marxist theory Lenin added a revolutionary caste of intellectuals who could provide an ideology for the working class. These revolutionary intellectuals exposed the economic and social realities obscured by the ideology of the dominant class, thereby intervening in the progress of history. In Leninist theory revolution became not just inevitable but also intentional. Ideology took on a more conspiratorial aspect, since now it could be created and manipulated. The revolution of 1917 in Russia, engineered in part by Lenin's Bolsheviks, seemed to attest to the connection between ideology and revolutionary upheaval.
Marxist ideas, however, came under challenge in the early decades of the century by sociologists such as Karl Mannheim and Max Weber, who sought a more objective understanding of the term. Mannheim, for one, understood ideology as a worldview, or Weltanschauung, shared by a particular social group. For Mannheim, Marxism represented just one example of an ideology. But common usage still largely followed the dictates of Marxist theory: ideology was distorting and irrational, an instrument of power. Max Lerner, writing in the 1930s, declared that ideas were weapons. Most Americans shared this view, and influenced by the events of 1917 and the experience of World War II, identified ideology with totalitarianism. The particulars of Marxist-Leninism and the excesses of Nazi Germany linked ideology with the enemies of American ideals. It was something others—like Hitler or Stalin—had. Students of totalitarianism such as Hannah Arendt reinforced these views. In her influential The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt wrote that totalitarian states had introduced into international affairs a new and dangerous dynamic. To these states she attributed a neglect of national interests, a contempt for utilitarian motives, and an unwavering faith in an ideological fictitious world. Terror and ideology became inseparable in her interpretation. Yet at the same time, amidst the explicitly ideological rhetoric of the Cold War, many American observers remained curiously blind to the importance of ideology in American society.
The work of realist writers such as George F. Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, however, challenged the notion that American foreign policy remained devoid of ideology. The "realists," as they called themselves to emphasize their critique of idealism in international affairs, became especially prominent in the early 1950s. For these writers ideology acted as a cover for the "real" interests that drove foreign policy. In Morgenthau's 1948 Politics Among Nations, the struggle for power that defined international politics wore an ideological disguise. This disguise might prove impenetrable to even the policymaker himself. For realists like Morgenthau ideology holds the danger of distraction and delusion while at the same time serving as justification and cover. Whereas in Marxist theory ideology provided a camera obscura image of class interests, for these writers state interests represented the "reality" that ideology distorted. The idea of ideology as obscuring power politics and "real" interests appeared in Kennan's writing explicitly tied to American foreign policy. In American Diplomacy, Kennan described American foreign policy in the twentieth century as woven with "the red skein" of legalistic moralism. Kennan argued that legalistic-moralistic tendencies had long marred American diplomacy and called on policymakers to remove their ideological blinders and pursue a policy based upon calculations of interest. Kennan never explicitly labeled this moralistic-legalistic "approach" as ideology. Yet the analogy remained clear.
Beginning in the 1960s revisionist historians and New Left critics such as William Appleman Williams further developed the idea of ideology as at once driving and distorting American policy. But for Williams the problem with American foreign policy lay not in its moralism. Rather, drawing on the Marxist link between ideology and political economy, Williams in his 1959 The Tragedy of American Diplomacy discovered the "open door." He defined open door ideology as a belief that American prosperity and security depended upon an informal empire of markets around the globe. Market capitalism underlay this ideology, of course, and Williams argued that it had served only to lead American policymakers astray. In his revised 1972 edition of Tragedy, he wrote that Vietnam offered a clear example. Williams described the war in Vietnam as a disaster born of efforts to extend the reach of America's informal empire abroad. It represented one more incident in a history of "blustering and self-righteous crusades." In the context of Vietnam, the realists and the New Left agreed on this point, if little else: American ideology served to obscure and distort American interests, drawing the United States into an endless, and hopeless, crusade against communism. Ideology thus stood reaffirmed as a corrosive blight rather than a creative force. Williams's take on ideology and foreign policy proved influential among historians and shaped scholarship during the 1960s and 1970s. The Marxist connection between political economy and ideology along with the conception of ideology as distortion remained alive and well.
But in the field of anthropology, Clifford Geertz was turning away from these ideas. No longer should ideology carry the negative baggage of distortion and concealment traditionally loaded upon it, he argued. Beginning in the 1970s Geertz began to separate it from the role of maintaining power relationships. Instead the anthropologist redefined ideology as an integrated and coherent system of symbols, values, and beliefs. Although still at times the province of a dominant class or group and able to act in the context of power, ideology takes on a broader meaning in Geertz's interpretation. Rather than obscuring social relationships, ideology both formulates and communicates social reality. Geertz's understanding of ideology depended upon his conception of culture, which offers a context within which events can be "thickly" described and which is embodied in public symbols. Within the context of culture, ideology provides a necessary symbol system to make sense of the world, especially significant in times of crisis or rapid change. And here is a crucial distinction between Geertz's understanding of ideology and Mannheim's Weltanschauung: For Geertz, ideology is publicly expressed and can be found in the rituals and symbols of a society, not just in the heads of individuals. Thus for the student of culture ideology offers an entrée into the ways in which societies understand their collective experiences, daily realities, and identities. Through the lens of ideology one can read the truth of a culture and society.
Subsequently, Michael Hunt extended the insights of Clifford Geertz to the study of American foreign policy. And for many in the field, Hunt's book proved a revelation. In U.S. Ideology and Foreign Policy, Hunt argues that three main ideas constitute American ideology: the promise of national greatness, a hierarchy of race, and a fear of social revolution. American ideology entwined the fate of liberty at home and abroad with a sense of mission and a belief in America as an agent of progress. The efforts of Woodrow Wilson in 1918 to secure acceptance of his Fourteen Points provide a case in point. In Hunt's view Wilson sought a leading international role for the United States, promoting liberty abroad and ensuring Anglo-Saxon cultural supremacy. Like the critics of the 1960s and 1970s, Hunt finds that ideology had largely led Americans astray. Significantly, however, it was the details of the ideology Americans had adopted rather than ideology in itself that had caused all the trouble. By changing the symbols and language of American foreign policy, Hunt offers the possibility of altering its substance.
Other scholars working across disciplinary lines of sociology, political science, and history have similarly turned their attention to the close study and interpretation of ideology and culture. Drawing on the work of French theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, they examine the language used by policymakers and analyze the meanings, or "genealogies," of the very words that compose policy. By placing language at the center of social reality, the "linguistic turn" reaffirms ideology's importance. For postmodernists, language constitutes reality; that is, we cannot understand the world around us outside of the words that we use to describe it. For these theorists language serves to replicate and reinforce power relationships much in the way that ideology had in Marxist theory. Postmodernist scholars of the Cold War have explored the meaning of national security and the images of contagion and disease that were often used in the context of Cold War foreign policy. Others, like David Campbell, have examined closely the ways in which foreign policy and the language used to describe it reinforce identity and serve to define a state. In Writing Security, Campbell argues that the United States represents an imagined community par excellence, which relies on the language and metaphors of its foreign policy to affirm its existence. For these scholars, the ideas and the language are the reality of foreign policy.