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Definition and Components of Political Ideologies

Heywood defines Ideology as “a coherent set of ideas that provides the basis for organized political action, where this is intended to preserve, modify, or overthrow the existing system of power.”



It is common for political thinkers and writers, especially in comparative politics, to claim that one of the easiest ways of differentiating the nature of governments is to identify the nature or type of the ideologies they adopted, that is, the differences in the nature of governments in the world are usually associated with the differences in their ideologies. For example, the former USSR, CHINA, VIETNAM, CUBA and NORTH KOREA adhere to Socialism and Communism as having a different political system as compared to US, GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE, CANADA, and the PHILIPPINES because of their adherence to Democracy and Capitalism.

Defining Ideologies

Heywood defines Ideology as “a coherent set of ideas that provides the basis for organized political action, where this is intended to preserve, modify, or overthrow the existing system of power.

This definition provides us with three important ideas that applies to all sorts of ideology:

  1. Ideology is a coherent set of ideas – not just a mere collection of statements or philosophical articulations.
  2. Ideology provides a basis for political action – put in another way, ideologies are action-oriented, they primarily arouse people who hold them into purposeful action. And this political action is geared to:
  3. Ideology is used to Preserve, modify, or overthrow the existing system of power.

As such, we can say that all or any ideology:

  1. Situates people within a particular social environment.
  2. Is both idea and action-oriented.
  3. Offers an account of the existing order.
  4. Provides the model of a designed future.
  5. Explains how political change can be best achieved.

Structural Components of Ideology

There are three major structural elements of Ideology: section, Philosophy, Program and Propaganda.

Philosophy: “What is to be desired”.

The philosophical component of Ideology enables Ideologies to formulate desirable goals based on some Philosophical notions. As such, Ideology is not Philosophy – rather it makes an open or hidden appeal to Philosophy. Ideology takes side on the issues that have divided philosophers over the centuries – it presents those that best serve its overall Intention. Philosophy is thus employed to provide a rational basis for those things that are proposed to be achieved. The Philosophical component of ideology involves evaluation of the present system of things, whether it is desirable or not. The following are examples of philosophical questions which interests ideology:

  • What is justice, and what is a just society? (For Marx, justice follows the maxim each according to Ability, each according to Needs. For Smith, each according to his contribution)
  • Does history have a meaning, or is it a vast mass of separate events? (For Marx it does)
  • Does God exist? (For Lenin it does not, God is just an opium of the people)
  • Is the world material or Spiritual? (For Marx its material)

However, Ideology seldom employs Philosophical notions completely, neither it uses them clearly and carefully. The reason for this is simple – the complexity and technicality of Philosophical concepts will bore most of the audience away an ideology is supposed to reach. To be politically effective, an ideology must unavoidably abridge, simplify, translate, and thus transform the relevant philosophical notions.

Program: “What is to be done”

Whereas Philosophical component vaguely suggests desirable goals, the Program must spell out more specifically the things that must be done. Whereas Philosophical component evaluates if something is desirable or undesirable, Program judges if something should be preserved or changed.

The Program component effectively serves as the connecting link between the Philosophical component and the highly concrete imagery of the propaganda component.

Propaganda: “How to provoke Action”

Of the three structural components of Ideology, Propaganda is the most elusive. It is directly linked to the mobilization function (i.e. arousing people to political action). The concept of Propaganda could either be perceived as traditional or modern:

  • Traditional Propaganda – Propaganda referring both to a process and means to modify ideas, to change adherence to a doctrine, to lead people to a choice, or to transform opinion.
  • Modern Propaganda – Propaganda as a means to provoke action, to make individuals cling irrationally to a process of action, to loosen reflexes of people, to arouse in people an active and mythical belief.

Propaganda is usually done by employing any or all of the following means:

  1. Rational and Intellectual Discourse;
  2. Exaggerations and Crude oversimplifications;
  3. Hypercharged Rhetorics; and
  4. Mythic Themes

Functional Components of Ideology

We now try to look closely at what ideologies actually do in political life. Ideology has three major Functions: interpretation, legitimization and mobilization.


Ideology functions as a set of guides or standard by which people interpret or give meaning to the political world. It helps people to see some political objects more clearly than they might otherwise. However, what a person can see and appreciate in the political world depends on what ideology he believes in. Ideology helps us appreciate some objects and obscure others. As different ideologies understandably provide their own peculiar insights and blind spots. Ideologies are like eye glasses: the right prescription can improve our vision considerably, where as the wrong lenses can reduce us to near blindness (Ibid. p.8).


Another function of Ideology is the legitimization of political regimes. Ideology provides rational basis as to why people should support a particular regime or why laws, rules and regulations should be followed. It justifies the existence and explains the rightfulness of a particular system of power. Though legitimization or legitimation is only one of the many ways to command obedience, for instance other ways may include the use of brute force, legitimization is perceived to be the most effective and the most comfortable means in ensuring the cooperation of the people. According to Gaetano Mosca (1958: p.52):

“No political class, however constituted, ever admits that it commands for the sole reason that it is composed of elements which are – or have been to that historical point – fittest to govern. It always finds justification of its power in an abstract principle, in a formula…”

Mosca called this formula Political Formula. Political formula serves both to explain and justify the rule of the ruling class, the change in the political formula indicates the change in the actual composition of the ruling class. However, it should be pointed out that the political formula is not above the ruling class, rather the ruling class adopts the political formula that is most useful to it.


The third function of Ideology is Mobilization. Generally, Mobilization refers to the process of inspiring people into action or making people act in ways it is expected or intended for the achievement of something. We noted that mobilization function is directly linked with propaganda. As such, ideology has a mobilizing force that works both in elite and mass level. There are two classes of people which Ideology can mobilize.

  1. Intellectual Elites – the intellectuals who feel alienated to the status quo. They are the principled people who are prone to think of themselves as the custodian of moral, social and religious values, which the existing system and its ideology are perceived to be violating.
  2. The Masses – the “man in the street” who are deeply frustrated because of their unachieved aspirations and the state of their material condition. The frustrated Masses do not want complex analyses or sophisticated diagnoses of their plight, they want simple answers to what is wrong as well as short-order solutions to their woes (Haggopian: 1993, p.10). Ideologies mobilize the masses by fanning this discontent into full conflagrations.

Situating Political and Economic Ideologies

The most familiar model in studying ideologies is the Linear Spectrum. It locates political beliefs at some point between two extremes, the far left and the far right. Terms such as “left wing” or “right wing” are widely used to sum up a person’s political beliefs or position, and groups of people are referred to collectively as “the left”, “the right”, and indeed “the center”.

The linear spectrum is commonly understood to reflect different political values or contrasting views about economic policy. Below is the summary of the political values and economic views that are commonly expressed by “Left” and “Right” Ideologies and ideologues:

Political Views

Committed to Equality. Equality is desirable and possible to achieveReject Equality. Equality is undesirable and impossible
Revolutionary. Change the systemReactionary. Preserve the status quo

Economic Views

State-regulated/ planned EconomyFree-market economy
Abolition of Private propertyProtection of Right to private property

The linear spectrum also locates the position of the ideologues (i.e. believers of a particular ideology) as to their proximity to the center, to the extreme Right and extreme Left of the spectrum. Each of these classes of people manifests certain values.

Radical – Associated with violence; characterized by an extreme political and social dissatisfaction; Progressive; It favors drastic and immediate change; it believes that man are capable of changing the present system and new system will be much better than that which is desired to be overthrown.

Liberals – Dissatisfied and desires change and reform but not through violence; It believes that humans are capable of changing social institutions; it believes in Human Rationality; it is committed to equality.

Moderate – Satisfied in the existing order of things but open to the possibility of change; it believes that if change is to be done, it should be gradual and slow so as not to disrupt social order.

Conservative – Satisfied in the existing order of things and closed to the possibility of change; It doubts human rationality and capability to devise and construct a better alternative to the existing order; It believes that man is selfish.

Reactionary – Associated with violence; characterized by an extreme political and social dissatisfaction with existing order of things; Retrogressive; It desires the return of the former or old value systems.

Some Notes on the Linear Spectrum

The single most important weakness of Linear Spectrum is its attempt to reduce politics to a single dimension and suggests that political views can be classified according to only one criterion. This explains for most of its inconsistencies. Fascist regimes, for instance, practices state control and economic management, hence it should be placed in the far left, but Fascist regimes are reactionary, hence it should be placed in the far right. In cases as this, where should such a regime be placed? Linear spectrum does not provide an answer.

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