Ideology: concept and characteristics

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Subaltern classes can assert their specificity and play an innovative ideological role – even under the domination of Capital – essential to the constitution of a political and cultural counter-hegemony

Ideology as material and historical product

The analysis of the content of the ideas of the great thinkers reveals the mismatch – sometimes profound – between the interpretation that their theories offer of the real and the observed reality. A less superficial investigation of the conclusions reached by philosophers and social scientists about the nature of man and the phenomena produced by life in society proves this statement.

Aristotle, for example, despite having been a brilliant thinker, believed that men were unequal by nature, and that the difference in quality between superior and inferior men was as great “as that of the body in relation to the soul”. Based on this analysis, the great Greek philosopher logically concluded that the social condition of the slave was explained by his limited intelligence. Thus, he estimated that for slaves, “it is useful and fair to live in slavery” (ARISTÓTELES: 1971, p.1).

People in general are surprised to learn that such seemingly outlandish conceptions have been elaborated by men like Aristotle, whose perceptive intelligence and privileged culture cannot be doubted. In fact, the more or less deformed view of the object of analysis does not depend, fundamentally, on the degree of intelligence and culture of the observer, but on objective elements that relate to the material conditions in which it is inserted.

As Marx said “the phantasmagorias of the human brain are sublimations necessarily resulting from its material life process” (MARX: 2008, p. 77). In other words, men build an illusory view of a given reality on a given reality, and this ideological construction is always explainable by the concrete and specific conditions of the historical period and the type of society in which they live (1). Thus, the history of humanity goes through stages that range from life in primitive societies, marked by the incipient development of the forces of production (means of producing wealth, such as instruments of work, raw material and man's productive force), to the capitalist mode of production, where science and technology occupy a prominent place.

It is understood, therefore, that in primitive societies, human thought is impregnated with magical-religious explanations. Phenomena such as storm or drought (natural), or war (social), had, according to the primitives, as cause the wrath or anger of the gods, dissatisfied with the behavior of men. On the other hand, the material conditions typical of modern societies, characterized by scientific and technological development – ​​an expression of the advanced stage of development of the productive forces – provide objective bases that explain the remarkable evolution in the way of capturing natural and social phenomena, until recently evaluated from the perspective of the supernatural.

Currently, even religious ideologues dismiss the direct relationship between these phenomena and the supposed action of the Divinity. On the other hand, an expressive majority of scholars of society converge in the affirmation that conflicts such as wars, rebellions and strikes are caused by economic and social factors, which can be, by human action, eliminated or mitigated. It is, therefore, evident that the world of representations that men elaborate has no history of its own. On the contrary, they are products of the concrete and specific conditions of their material life (2).

ideology and science

The perception that man has of reality, the result of his concrete practice, cannot, by definition, escape the multiple constraints resulting from this praxis, specific to the subject, the social class and the historical period to which he belongs. Leandro Konder already warned about “the need to guard against the illusion of a pure science, which developed on the margins of the global history of men and remained immune to the contingencies of this history (1965, p.74).

A certain degree of opacity, and therefore of Ideology, is therefore intrinsic to scientific knowledge, whose norms were not dictated by any divinity immune to time and the injunctions of change. They are historically conditioned norms. As such, they evolve and change. This means that, in matters of science, there is no absolute objectivity “The image of the world that the sciences elaborate in no way can be conceived as a photographic snapshot. In one way or another, it is always interpretation” (JAPIASSÚ:1981, ps.44-5).

Leandro Konder adds that “it would be naive to assume a clear separation between science and ideology because it would be to misunderstand the nature of ideological thinking, supposing it incompatible with any form of scientificity. This does not happen. The ideological does not exclude the scientific” (1965, p.75).

Gramsci never separated science and ideology into watertight compartments, since, for him, there is no dichotomy between “pure”, scientific, supposedly “proletarian” knowledge and bourgeois, false and misleading ideology. According to the Sardinian thinker, “every form of human knowledge is crossed by ideology: the task of the philosophy of praxis (understand Marxism), as a superior, coherent and organic ideology, it is “to carry out a critique of these still confused and contradictory conceptions” …through an “intellectual and moral reform that spreads a new and superior culture among the masses” (Gramsci in COUTINHO: 1984, p.85).

If so, to reach new heights in the knowledge of society and politics, “it is not a matter of ex-novo introducing a science into everyone's individual life, but of innovating and making critical an already existing activity”, overcoming and dialectically incorporating knowledge mediated by common sense (Gramsci in COUTINHO> 1981, p. 27).

It is interesting to point out that, according to the conceptions exposed above, which do not dichotomize science and ideology, it is not possible to classify ideas as true (scientific) or false. The initial criterion for judging the validity of certain ideas, and the impropriety of others, is the criterion of practice. Those that prove capable of fulfilling the function they propose. That is, when they prove to be effective, they can postulate the condition of “true”; those that do not withstand the tests of history are “false”.

However, if effectiveness is necessary, it is not enough to consider certain ideas “true”. These, to be recognized, cannot be valued only for their operability, as it is not an assessment that involves merely technical elements. The decisive criterion for valuing knowledge is necessarily related to its ethical-political dimension.

The student revolt that took place in May 1968, in France, condemned “the mystifying imperialism of science, the guarantee of all abuses and setbacks, to substitute it for the choice between the possibilities it offers”. French students understood that it is conditio sine qua non for science and technology to be liberating, the modification of their current objectives of destroying the means of social production Furthermore, the Libertarian Spring of May 1968 put to the ground the belief in automatic progress: “our modernism is nothing more than a modernization of police” (MATOS:1981, p.12).

Erich Fromm, an eminent scholar of Social Psychology, making a scientific critique of the instrumentalization of science by ideology, states that “Currently, the mission of psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis threatens to become an instrument of manipulation of men. Specialists in this field tell us what the “normal” person is, invent methods to help us adapt, to be happy, to be normal. Constant repetition by newspapers, radio and television does almost all of the conditioning.” And he adds: “its practitioners are becoming the priests of the new religion of entertainment, consumption and depersonalization, specialists in manipulation, spokesmen of personality alienated” (1955: p. 156-157).

role of ideology

Ideological thinking is expressed, at first, in a rational explanation to then reach the concreteness of social relations. At this moment, it materializes in the praxis of individuals, performing its primary function: that of adapting behaviors, regardless of the diversity of Interests in presence, to the established order. In other words: “in ideology, the practical-social function overlaps the theoretical or knowledge function. It therefore has a double relationship: with knowledge, on the one hand, and with society, on the other”. (ESCOBAR, 1979, p. 67).

Therefore, the dominant ideology functions as a stabilizing element, par excellence, of social relations, to the benefit of the classes that govern the productive system. It is “the indispensable cement for the cohesion of practices in a social formation” (ESCOBAR:1979, p.67). Which means that ideology constitutes a powerful instrument of domination, insofar as it manages to legitimize the order established by the active or passive adherence of subordinate classes to the values ​​and standards of behavior in force. This adhesion takes place, as a rule, through a dominated mechanism of internalization, or “interiorization”.

We know that the ideology of the dominant class, when it radiates throughout society, is assimilated by members of the dominated classes, who make their own the ideas of the dominant ones. Frequently, this penetration of ideology makes the subordinate classes, by internalizing the values ​​that are of interest to capital, assume ipso facto a psychological posture, and a corresponding behavior of those who consider these values ​​to be authentic.

The former are themselves in charge of guaranteeing, either through self-monitoring and blaming, or through simple convincing, the rules of behavior dictated by the latter, in the latter's exclusive interest. However, the ruling classes are not “genetically” able to understand the historical and class nature of ideology, as well as the fact that it is men who produce their social relations, according to their material production. They also create the ideas, the categories, that is, the abstract expressions of these same social relations: “these categories are as little eternal as the relations that express them: they are transitory historical products” (KOSIK:1969, p.15).

Musse brings up Lukács' analysis on the subject, when he recalls that “the class consciousness of the holders of capital (and its representatives), or their 'unconsciousness' – delimited by the practical historical function of this class – prevents them from understanding the origin of social configurations. The class as a whole, as well as the individuals that comprise it, are subject to this reflective need whose characteristics are disregard for history, with the naturalization of the present and attachment to immediate data that contribute to the concealment of social relations” (MUSSE: 2020).

Indeed, the bourgeoisie of our country, for example, would live on earth as if they were in hell, if they were forced to live with the feeling of guilt and remorse of feeling responsible for the poverty and misery in which most Brazilians vegetate. Capitalists rationalize their role, claiming that they should not be burdened with taxation or taxes that lead them, even modestly, to contribute to the reduction of social inequality. For them, by affecting their profits, they have a negative impact on “free competition”, inhibiting the “animal instinct”, which gives the necessary “aggressiveness” to their initiatives.

Pellegrino stresses that they “believe that the regime of “free enterprise”, of which they are the mainstays, is the only one that can ensure, through the market economy, social progress and individual freedom, the supreme aspirations of man. With this mystification, they kill two birds with one stone. Not only do they justify the exploitation of capital, but “they take on the tunic of truth, respectability and detachment”. They thus buy, at a “low price, for themselves, “a good conscience on earth and a captive chair in Heaven” (1983, p.3)

Ideology as (illusory) representation of the real

We show that ideas do not arise spontaneously in men's heads, nor are they, in substance, the result of the genius of great thinkers. The way of seeing each one of us, our understanding of reality, is determined by material and, mainly, economic constraints, which vary according to the historical period and the type of society in which we live. Indeed, historical materialism asserts that there is “a close relationship between reality, as it is experienced, and the way in which it is affected by the repercussions of the changes that take place there”. (DUBY:1976, p. 90).

Therefore, the representations that men make of the environment in which they live, and of the events in which they participate, are, to a greater or lesser extent, illusory. In the words of George Duby “the ideologies […] are inherently distorting reality. The image that they offer of social organization is built on a set of backlights that tend to hide certain articulations at the time that project all the light onto others, with a view to privileging particular interests”. (1976, p 85-86) (3).

It should be clarified that this representation of the real, as it is illusory, is not exactly false – in the sense of pure and simple denial of what exists – manufactured from the fertile imagination of the subject who observes. Ideology translates, albeit in an illusory way, a certain aspect of reality. Let us return, in this regard, to the example of Aristotle. He expressed with his ideas what actually existed, when he found that men were unequal and when he identified the stratified character of the society in which they live. However, the illusion lies in the fact that this philosopher gives us an inverted view of reality. That is to say, he presents the results, or the consequences, as if they were the causes, or origin of the phenomena he studies.

Thus, inequality between men, which is an effect, a mere consequence of the slave regime, is understood as being the cause, or as being at the origin of this regime. In the same way, social stratification is not, as it seems to be, a mere extension of men's congenital inequality, but the expression of production relations, historically determined. It is seen that one cannot apprehend the substance of what is, but only the appearance of being. In this way, the effect (inequality, taken as natural) is pointed out as the cause, and the cause (the social relations of production) appears as a mere effect of “natural” inequality.

Therefore, in this case, ideology manifests itself in an optical illusion: what exists is perceived, but in an inverted way. However, even so, what the observer captures is something that exists, since “social appearance is not something false or wrong, but the way in which the social process appears in the direct consciousness of men. This means that the ideology has a real base, but this base is upside down” (CHAUI: 1981, p.105).

In Aristotle's case, the real basis is inequality, which, when surfaced, hides its social character, assuming the appearance of something natural. Despite inequality – a real phenomenon – being apprehended, an apparent cause is attributed to it – natural elements – and the philosopher from Estagira was unable to penetrate the fabric of social relations and detect the true inequality existing in the society in which he lives: the mode of production slaver.

According to Althusser “ideological representations may contain elements of knowledge, but they are always integrated and subject to a set of systems and representations, which is necessarily an oriented and falsified system, a system dominated by a false conception of the world” (1970, p. .85). This false conception means that, in ideology, men do not express their relationships with their conditions of existence (as we have seen, the dominant ideology, on the contrary, camouflages them), but rather the way in which they live these conditions (the condition of a slave is experienced as something natural). These two aspects are what show the split character, that is, at the same time, the “real relations” and the “imaginary relations” of the “concrete ideological relations” (ESCOBAR:1979, p. 68).

In summary, we can state that “the use of the concept of false consciousness does not mean total falsehood “it is not the ideology that is false, but its pretension of being in agreement with reality”. In fact, it is in line with “la realidad de la domination” (ADORNO:1993, p.191-193).

Ideology as representation, praxis and norm

Until now, we have studied ideology only as a manifestation of thought. However, in addition to the cognitive aspect, the concept of ideology also encompasses ways of acting and feeling whose characteristics depend on the way the object is perceived. This way is determined by the concrete, material and historical conditions of the individual's existence. Ideology also encompasses norms – moral or legal – which, by disciplining forms of behavior, ensure the implementation of values ​​embedded in ideological thinking, making it effective.

Let us illustrate the triple dimension of ideology (representation, praxis and normal), from the analysis of the behavior of a racist. This, based on a certain way of thinking that considers certain ethnic groups inferior, acts in a peculiar, discriminatory way in relation to them . For example, refusing a job to an Afro-descendant, for personnel reasons. Or referring in a pejorative way to the object of his discrimination: blacks “have the face of a monkey,” are “lazy, “dumb” or “beast”.

It can be seen that the emotional and psychological reactions of those who discriminate are obviously not neutral. The racist nurtures feelings of contempt, complacency or hatred towards those he considers inferior (4). Thus, considered at the individual level, naturally inferior, it will necessarily be, in the social sphere, treated as a second-class citizen.

But “structural racism” is so strong that even Afro-descendants well situated in the establishment internalize racist ideology. The President of the Palmares Foundation is an example of this – ironically, a body destined to contribute to the strengthening of black identity and consciousness. In his words: “slavery was terrible for the slaves, but beneficial for their descendants” (CHEFE ..2020).

Marilena Chauí emphasizes the multifaceted nature of ideology, showing that it is “a logical, systematic and coherent set of representations (ideas and values) and norms or rules of conduct that indicate to members of society what they should feel and how they should feel, what what they should do and how they should do it” (CHAUÍ, 1981: p. 11).

Ideology as a representation of class interests

As the previous analyzes demonstrate, men who live under the same type of social organization (for example, in bourgeois society) suffer the influence of a hegemonic ideology and the values ​​that express it. This ideology emanates from the “material base” of the productive system – the relations of production – which generate a social praxis based on the assertion of an exacerbated individualism and on competition, which involves the broadest sectors of society. Ideology is not, therefore, “a conscious subjective process, but an objective and subjective phenomenon, involuntary, produced by the objective conditions of the social existence of individuals” (CHAUÍ, 1981: p.18).

Thus, the bourgeois ideology, generated by the capitalist mode of production (which historically materializes in certain social formations) translates, at the level of ideas, the social praxis necessary for the reproduction of the productive system. Consequently, it expresses the interests of the economically dominant class, which elaborates its ideology and radiates it to all other classes.

For this reason, the perception that the exploited have of their economic and social situation, and of the means of transforming the world, often reproduces, in varying degrees, the ideology of the system, which is the ideology of the dominant class. This is what happens when workers realize their situation of misfortune but attribute it to the will of God, to fate or to problems that they consider insoluble, and, from then on, they tend to conform to the prevailing order, which would be just the product of a world of irremovable inequalities. Or else, when they manage to identify the roots of the exploitation from which they suffer without, however, believing in the value of their collective strength to transform the data of the real. Or, when doing so, they use strategies that are not suited to the needs of an affective change in the productive system.

The broad ideological hegemony exercised by the bourgeoisie in his time led Marx to assert that “the ideas of the ruling classes are, at all times, the ruling ideas: the class which is the dominant material force of society is also its dominant spiritual force. The class which has at its disposal the means of material production, for this reason also has the means of spiritual production…” (MARX: 1977, p.2).

Currently, this Marxian analysis can be relativized in terms of the transformations that have taken place in the democratic countries of advanced capitalism, which we will study below. However, Marilena Chauí seems to rigidly interpret this analysis by Marx, claiming that “although it is divided into classes and each one 'should' have its own ideas, the domination of one class over the others means that only the ideas of the class are considered. ruling class” (1981, p.92). According to Chauí, this class, having the means to produce material wealth, also becomes the owner of the means to produce ideas and thus manages to radiate its ideology throughout society, making it the common way of interpreting reality ( CHAUÍ: 1981: p.94).

Unlike Chauí, we consider that the subaltern classes can affirm their specificity and play an innovative ideological role – even under the domination of Capital – essential to the constitution of a political and cultural counter-hegemony of the referred classes.

Even if ideology is a form of thought structurally committed to alienation, it has often been constituted, even quite directly, to promote the transformation of societies and to propel men into the movement of history (KONDER:1965, p. .49). Indeed, Marx himself emphasized the active force of ideas when he stated that “theory becomes material reality as soon as it takes hold of the masses”. It is based on this understanding that Gramsci emphasizes the role of human consciousness “which is not a mere epiphenomenon, but which – in an ideological form – constitutes an ontologically determining element of social being” (COUTINHO : 1981, p.86).

As Bobbio observes, ideologies must be seen “no longer just as a posthumous justification of a power whose historical formation depends on material conditions”, but also “as forces that form and create a new history, collaborating in the formation of a power that is being constituted and not so much as justifying already constituted power” (BOBBIO, 1982: p. 41) (5)

* Rubens Pinto Lyra He holds a PhD in Political Science and Professor Emeritus at UFPB. Author, among other books, of Le Parti Communiste Français et l'intégration européenne (CEU) and Political Theory and Brazilian Reality (EDUESPB).



ALTHUSSER, Louis. State ideological apparatuses. Sao Paulo: Saraiva, 2007.

Aristotle. Politics. Madrid: Aguilar, 1977.

BOBBIO, Norberto. The concept of civil society. Rio de Janeiro: Grail, 1982.

CHAUÍ, Marilena. What is ideology? São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1981.

CHIEF of the Palmares Foundation says that slavery was beneficial for the descendants of slaves. 30 Aug. 2020

COUTINHO. Charles Nelson. Democracy as a universal value. Rio de Janeiro: Salamandra, 1984.

COUTINHO. Charles Nelson. Gramsci. Porto Alegre: Graal, 1981.. DUBY, Georges. Social history and ideologies of societies. Barcelona: Anagram, 1976. 117 p.

ESCOBAR, Carlos Henrique. Science of history and ideology. Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1979.

JAPIASSU, Hilton. The myth of scientific neutrality. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1981.

KONDER, Leandro. Marxism and alienation. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1965.

MATOS, Olgaria. Paris 1968: The Barricades of Desire. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1981.

MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. A ideology German. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, s/d. vol. 1, 1999, 316 p.

MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. In: Themes of Human Sciences. São Paulo: 1977. vol. two.

MUSSE, Ricardo.In the 0,001 club Available at https// Accessed on: 7 Jul 2020.

PELLEGRINO, Helio.Camel at the bottom of the needle. Folha de São Paulo. 29 Nov. 1983. p.3.



- So “the representation of the thing does not constitute a natural quality of things and of reality: it is the projection, in the subject's consciousness, of certain petrified historical conditions”.

– KOSIK, Karel. The Dialectic of the Concept. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1969. p. 15). For Marx, the men who produce their social relations, according to their material production, also create ideas, categories, that is, the abstract expressions of these same social relations. These categories are as little eternal as the relationships they express. They are transitory historical products”.

 MARX, Carl. Philosophical Texts. Lisbon: Editora Estampa, 1975. p. 23.

– The best criticism of the conception of the “falsity” of ideology as false representation is that of the “falsity” of ideology with false motivation. According to this understanding “the value judgment can be a false motivation, which covers or masks the real reasons for command or obedience. For example, the value judgment based on which one believes in the moral and natural superiority of the masters in relation to the slaves can mask, to a greater or lesser extent, in the conscience of the masters and the slaves, the prevailing motivation of the command, which can be interest, and the prevailing motive of obedience, which may be fear of violence.”

 The concept of ideology as false motivation is analogous to the concept of rationalization, with which “it designates, precisely, the elaboration of fictitious motives for the very actions whose real motive remains unconscious. But, while the concept of rationalization has an individual character, that of ideology has a social nature because it concerns collective behavior”.

STOPPINO, Mario. Ideology. In: BOOBIO, Norberto. Policy Dictionary. Brasilia: University of Brasilia, 1985. p. 585-597.

 (4) Racism is a stereotype. That is, a preconceived idea that, due to a certain value system, we feed in relation to certain people, acts, situations, etc. Thus, between two applicants for a job, being “one pretty and the other ugly and thin, my tendency will be to choose the pretty girl, not because she is the best, but because she corresponds to the stereotype of the “interesting” woman. I start to see the second candidate as someone incapable of working because her external image takes me there."

Ideology as praxis it is also manifested through rituals, laden with symbolism, such as religious marriage, based on the dogma of the indissolubility of the material bond. The bride's white attire symbolizes her purity, which would be tainted with the breaches of virginity, before marriage, and therefore, without the aim of procreating.

(5) As Bobbio aptly observes, in the passage on German ideology, quoted in the text, “ideologies appear always after the institutions, almost as a moment of reflection, insofar as they are considered in their aspect of posthumous and mystified-mystifying justifications of class rule”. (+)

(BOBBIO, Norberto. Civil society concept. Rio: Grail, 1982.


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