Rebecca Richards

’18, Baylor University 


Challenging the Marxist understanding of ideology as a disguise and distortion of social reality, I argue for a more neutral conception. Ideology is better understood as an unavoidable framework – all people have ideologies but not necessarily the same ideologies. Drawing on Althusser, Freeden, Ẑiẑek and other respected political philosophers, I examine how ideology can be morally neutral and yet a part of shaping reality. Social reality is neither comprehensively accessible nor accessible without an ideological framework. While ideology can be used for manipulation and power, the terms Marx uses to describe ideology are unnecessarily pejorative and do not accurately reflect the current understanding of ideology.


Ideology is a powerful word. Conjuring up images of political manipulation and propaganda, it often has negative connotations. Questioning this negative connotation, I argue that the Marxian phrase “ideologies are illusions that distort and disguise social reality” is an inadequate description of the real role and character of ideology. I show this by arguing first that ideologies serve as systems for understanding the world and, as such, their existence is unavoidable and ubiquitous. Secondly, because of their universal existence, “framework” seems to be a more appropriate categorization than “illusion.” This is especially true as the word “illusion” implies that ideologies can be revealed and dissolved based off of an access to social reality that we unfortunately lack. Thirdly, I explore how “distort” and “disguise” are pejorative phrasings, when “interpretation” could serve a similar purpose to describe the function of ideology. Fourthly, I argue that social reality is not comprehensively accessible from an objective standpoint and is shaped by acting out of ideological convictions. Lastly, I discuss why the descriptive phrase as a whole is pejorative and how ideology might be viewed in a different and somewhat more positive light in view of the inescapability of ideology as a political concept.

Ideologies are unavoidable in that they are frameworks through which everyone evaluates and understands the world. Though opinions differ as to the exact definition of an ideology, it often functions as a justification for power and action. Althusser credits Marx with the adoption of ideology into the political field.[1] He summarizes Marx’s definition as, “the system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.”[2] Marx focuses on ideology relating to class-consciousness and domination.[3] He believed that the world operated under an ideology that he could unveil and, in so doing, expose the true nature of reality.[4] Yet, Marx was ascribing to an ideology himself.[5] Like the rest of the human race, he had a specific way of understanding what he saw as social reality. Althusser adds to Marx’s theories of ideology but orients them toward a universal condition for social order.[6] Unlike Marx, Althusser acknowledges the unavoidable and trans-historical nature of ideology.[7] Freeden recognizes this as well.[8] He describes the study of ideology as that which, “focuses on the world of ideas and symbols through which political actors find their way and comprehend their social surroundings. It informs their practices and institutions and it establishes the parameters and expectations.”[9While not the same for all political actors, all political actors see social reality through a discursive framework of ideas, symbols, language and context. In this way, ideology is ubiquitous and unavoidable.[10]

If ideology is understood as a framework of understanding social reality, “illusion” does not seem like an appropriate descriptor, as it implies a sense in which social reality can be viewed without an ideological interpretation. Rhetorically, the term brings to mind a magic trick where, if the smoke and mirrors are taken away, the spectator is made aware of their delusional state by a mundane explanation of misdirection, or, access to reality. Yet, Ẑiẑek writes, “ideology has nothing to do with ’illusion’, with a mistaken, distorted representation of its social content.”[11] An ideology can have true or false content and still be an ideology. Illusions and magic tricks rely on an ideological idea of an objectively and comprehensively accessible reality.[12] It appears, however, that social reality is not objectively accessible or fixed.[13] Barrett writes, “Ideology is a vain attempt to impose closure on a social world whose essential characteristic is the infinite play of differences and the impossibility of any ultimate fixing of meaning.”[14] This view may be a bit extreme in its emphasis on the fluctuating nature of the world, but it is valuable to note that an ideology may get some things right at a certain time. However, due to the changing nature of ideology and social reality, the latter can change so that that particular ideology is no longer accurate. The term “framework” does not carry the same rhetorical implications as “illusion.” This is especially true as, if ideology were an illusion, then disillusionment would not really be access to reality but re-illusionment. A framework is not exchanged in the same way an illusion would be rejected – it reveals the ubiquitous and inescapable nature of ideology more accurately than “illusion.”

Asking whether ideologies “distort or disguise” social reality is a pejorative phrasing, when it seems just as accurate, if not more so, to say that ideology provides an “interpretive framework” of the world that is not necessarily negatively motivated. Marx, however, was committed to the idea of ideology as a disguise and distortion of the world.[15] Describing a similar criticism to Marx of ideology, Ẑiẑek writes, “The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.”[16] Ideology does more than reveal a particular understanding of the world; it can also change reality. A dominant ideology can shape the way things are and how they appear. In a potentially dangerous sense, interpretations of reality can be used as a mask or illusion to deceive a general public and justify domination.[17] That being said, it seems inconsistent for an ideology to both disguise how things are by presenting them a certain way if it is simultaneously making that same reality. Reality would no longer be disguised – the ideology would be correct. Reality, however, is fluid in the sense that it is changing; the facts of reality are not permanently inscribed. Freeden writes that, “through our diverse ideologies, we provide competing interpretations of what the facts might mean.”[18] Interpretation of reality is necessary as it would be impossible to comprehensively understand the world at any given moment. Yet, describing various interpretations as disguise or distortion implies a motive behind interpretation that simply might not be there – especially since it is impossible to lack an ideology.

If social reality is objectively inaccessible in a comprehensive sense, the question is raised as to what degree ideology influences social reality. Some argue that ideology serves a constitutive role in shaping reality.[19] They claim that ideology disguises reality and distorts it into the shape of the disguise.[20] This occurs when the subjects remain unconscious that ideology is working to change social reality.[21] Freeden writes, “Ideologies are not exact representations of an ideational reality, but symbolic reconstructions of it. They are based on a collation of fragmented facts and competing values that themselves intervene in that reality. The map often becomes the reality itself.”[22] Ideologies do not represent external reality but how external reality is understood.[23] Thus, these facts and values that Freeden discusses differ in emphasis between ideologies. Our experience of social reality is limited by time and location – we can only experience certain dimensions of social reality. Thus, our understanding of reality is inherently limited. Yet, because we view the world a certain way and act according to those beliefs, reality can be changed to a certain degree in order to reflect that understanding through active intervention. Conflicting ideologies challenge the accuracy of understandings of the world and force reconciliation, domination or conflation of ideologies that remake social reality. Even if all ideologies were reconciled, the result would still be an ideology – a specific understanding of how the world works, especially in a political sense. In virtue of ideology reflecting an interpretation of the world and involving action based on that interpretation, ideology shapes social reality to a certain degree.

The claim that “ideologies are illusions that distort and disguise social reality” is phrased in a rhetorically negative manner that does not seem to reflect the current understanding of ideology. Perhaps this is because Marx assimilated the concept into politics by being concerned with class-domination.[24] Yet, according to Van Dijk, this view of ideology as an instrument of domination contains a certain bias.[25] A more positive view of ideology is possible.[26] After ideology became a more universally recognized concept, it was used by totalitarian governments and associated with political domination.[27] This understanding of ideology only in terms of extreme political power appears to have ended, for now, in the 1970s.[28] Ideology is currently understood to have a more malleable than dogmatic nature and thus is seen as potentially less dangerous.[29] With the change of focus in ideology, perhaps its negative associations with “illusion,” “disguise,” and “distort” will begin to fade as well.

Ideologies serve a similar purpose to contact lenses: they reveal the world in a particular way to us. We all have eyes and we all have ideologies. The thing is, contact lenses are easier to exchange than ideologies. The latter requires a re-evaluation of assumptions, language and context because ideology is greatly socialized. The former merely requires an optical prescription. Rather than being illusions that subject reality to distortion and disguise, ideologies present a framework through which to understand and to shape social reality. This is not to say that ideologies cannot be false or oriented toward attaining power, but that ascription to ideology is an inescapable part of social reality. As such, ideology can be framed in a more positive sense than the descriptive terms of “illusion,” “disguise,” and “distort” imply. Perhaps a new definition needs to be developed in order to replace the pejorative terms with somewhat more neutral phrasing, all the while recognizing that any way we discuss ideology will reveal, in some aspect, our own ideology.


[1] L. Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” in Mapping Ideologies, ed. S. Ẑiẑek (London: Verso, 1994), 120.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] T. Eagleton, “Ideology and its Vicissitudes,” in Mapping Ideologies, ed. S. Ẑiẑek (London: Verso, 1994), 181.

[4] D. Leopold, “Marxism and Ideology: from Marx to Althusser,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, ed. M. Freeman and M. Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2013), 23.

[5] Althusser, “Ideological State Apparatus,” 121.

[6] Leopold, “Marxism and Ideology,” 32.

[7] Althusser, “Ideological State Apparatus,” 121.

[8] M. Freeden, Ideology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1.

[9] Ibid., 123.

[10]A. Norval, “Poststructuralist Conceptions of Ideology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, ed. M. Freeman and M. Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2013), 164.

[11] S. Ẑiẑek, “Introduction: the Spectre of Ideology,” in Mapping Ideologies, ed. S. Ẑiẑek (London: Verso, 1994), 7 (no emphasis added).

[12] Ibid., 8.

[13] Barrett “Ideology, Politics, Hegemony: from Gramsci to Laclau and Moffe,” in Mapping Ideologies, ed. S. Ẑiẑek (London: Verso, 1994), 261.

[14] Ibid., 260.

[15] S. Ẑiẑek, “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom,” in Mapping Ideologies, ed. S. Ẑiẑek (London: Verso, 1994), 312.

[16] Ibid., 312

[17] Althusser, “Ideological State Apparatus,” 77.

[18] Freeden, Ideology, 2.

[19] Ẑiẑek, “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom,” 316; Norval “Poststructuralist Conceptions of Ideology,” 165.

[20] Ẑiẑek, “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom,” 316.

[21] Ẑiẑek, “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom,” 316; Norval “Poststructuralist Conceptions of Ideology,” 165.

[22] Freeden, Ideology, 65.

[23] B. Strӑth, “Ideology and Conceptual History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, ed. M. Freeman and M. Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 18.

[24] Freeden, Ideology, 6.

[25]T. Van Dijk, “Ideology and Discourse,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, ed. M. Freeman and M. Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2013), 176.

[26] Van Dijk, “Ideology and Discourse,” 176; Freeden, Ideology, 21.

[27] Freeden, Ideology, 128.

[28] Brick, “The End of Ideology Thesis,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, ed. M. Freeman and M. Stears (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2013), 20.

[29] Freeden, Ideology, 128.



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