Short Entry

‘Ideology’ has a long history in political discourse, its value and meaning hotly disputed. This article will suggest it makes best sense understood as semiotic theory generated from political struggles. This gives it its characteristic confusions and contradictions, making it a topic which mainstream semiotics might contribute much to, and from which it has much to learn.

Etymologically it comes from Greek idea (image, form, idea) and logos (system of thought, discipline). It can refer (Williams 1977:55) to a ‘system of beliefs common to a particular group’, a ‘system of illusory beliefs’, or the ‘general process of the production of meanings and ideas’, which is similar to semiosis, the production and circulation of signs. All carry the idea of logos.

Many people suppose it was coined by Karl Marx, but he only adopted the term uncritically from others, and re-used it polemically, inconsistently and without defining it. It was invented by French Enlightenment thinker Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), to mean the science of ideas. He understood ‘ideas’ in a semiotic sense, before semiotics existed. Destutt de Tracy was a materialist who, following Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780), derived all ideas from sensory impressions. His philosophy angered Napoleon, who influentially trashed ‘ideology’ and ‘ideologues’. Marx took over Napoleon’s negative spin, and used ‘ideology’ to critique German philosophers, whose ‘idealist’ philosophy was exactly the opposite of Destutt de Tracy’s materialism.

In Marx’s polemic, ‘ideology’ was the systematic, limited, perverse thinking of opponents he saw as intellectual tools of corrupt regimes. It is poor practice to limit definitions of words to polemic uses, yet this has been the fate of ‘ideology’. Many argue (e.g. Thompson 1984) that connection with the dominant should be part of its definition. One consequence of this is the too common practice of distinguishing ‘ideology’ (of opposing groups) from ‘science’ or ‘truth’ (what my group think).

Yet something like the etymological meaning, referring more neutrally to systems of ideas of specific groups, not only survived Marx’s attack, but runs alongside it as a major meaning (see Williams above). This combines Destutt de Tracy’s and Marx’s contributions, in different proportions, tying systems of thought to identifiable social groups and interests.

‘Ideology’ is invaluable to socially-oriented semiotics because it identifies a unitary object that incorporates complex sets of meanings with the social agents and processes that produced them. No other term captures this object as well as ‘ideology’. Foucault’s ‘episteme’ is too narrow and abstract, not social enough. His ‘discourse’, popular because it covers some of ‘ideology’s’ terrain with less baggage, is too confined to verbal systems. ‘Worldview’ is too metaphysical, ‘propaganda’ too loaded. Despite or because of its contradictions, ‘ideology’ still plays a key role in semiotics oriented to social, political life.

Long Entry

The Marxist tradition

The birth of ideology in the Enlightenment thought of Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) deserves to be recovered in modern understandings of the term. Destutt de Tracy laid down a usefully broad basis for the term, in works that have unfortunately been almost forgottn. A key proposition in his Eléments d’idéologie (1801) was the idea that ‘ideology is part of Zoology’, because ‘we have only an incomplete knowledge of an animal if we do not know its intellectual faculties’. This suggestive proposition inserts ideology into biosemiotics, well before it was recognised as it is today, through the work of Thomas Sebeok among others.

Paradoxically, something like this idea can be seen in a positive sense Marx gave to ‘consciousness’. This serves a similar function to Destutt de Tracy’s ‘ideology’, making the Marxist legacy richer if more confusing. The classic text in Marx is the following:

Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious being, and the being of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their relations appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process. (1976:42).

The first sentence here more or less translates Destutt de Tracy’s materialist conception of ideas as forms of consciousness arising from actual life-processes (sensations), in all animals including humans. But for Marx, this consciousness is inseparable from language, and hence we can say, from semiosis: ‘language is as old as consciousness, language is practical, real consciousness’ (1976:49). In this image, reality is not simply distorted by these ideologues, it is neatly inverted. It is what later came to be called ‘false consciousness’. Yet this inversion seems as natural as normal vision, where brains effortlessly correct for the problems of the retina. Following this analogy, one might suppose that ideologues transmit reality accurately, just upside down. Why then is there not a simple device that corrects for the inversion of ideology?

Marx and Marxism do not offer such a device, unless the certainty of ‘vulgar Marxists’ in decoding ideology implies that Marxism itself is such a device. But the reference to ‘historical life-process’ implies something more complex and valuably Marxist: an attention to history and context in analysing all intellectual production. ‘Ideologues’, in this view, would be like us all, formed by our specific histories and the forces acting on us, introducing distortion which becomes invisible (‘unconscious’). Another metaphor would be needed here, to capture the sense that the outcome of all these factors is highly complex and unpredictable, beyond any simple inversion-operation to correct. If this process is built into normal processes of cognition, as Marx’s image seems to imply, there is no undistorted, non-ideological point of view from which to judge and correct ideology.

Implicit in Marx’s contrast between ‘conscious existence’ immersed in ‘actual life-process’, and ‘ideology’ produced by ideologues, may be greater weight given to ‘logos’ in ideology, as a kind of thought which is more abstract and systematic than normal consciousness. This can be seen in his comments on the division of mental and material labour within a ruling class,

so that within this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood) while the other’s attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves (1976:68)

This implies that ideologues are more captured by the ideology they produce than anyone else, even the material rulers of society, who consume these illusory ideas rather than creating them. Presumably they produce practical consciousness that is less distorted. Yet Marx’s critique of ideology, in this exemplary form, seems especially associated with a particular situation, where intellectuals in class societies have no independent source of livelihood. This might allow independent intellectuals (e.g. Marx and Engels) to be less ideological. But where does this leave intellectuals in universities today (like the present author and most of his readers)? Bourdieu’s study of ‘homo academicus’ (1988) raises issues about this aspect of ideology.

The contested category of ideology is crucial to Marxist accounts of history, which can be understood as a semiotic theory, since it is a method for ‘reading’ all intellectual productions out of which histories are written.

(We do) not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but… from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process (1976:42)

This is often interpreted as a manifesto for simplistic materialism, in which reality (‘real, active men’) can be immediately and directly known through their ‘real life-processes’, as though what they have to say is irrelevant to this process of decoding. Yet this interpretation is inconsistent with the vital role of ‘consciousness’ as an intrinsic part of the human life-process, which we cannot know without hearing people say or communicate what they think or feel or mean by what they do. Nor could we know anything about most of the human race, now and in the past, that we only know through what they or others have said or written.

If a Marxist semiotics (or the historical, social, political, economic analysis which rests on it) is to be possible, we need to resist the binary opposition between intellectual and material. If these ‘real, active men’ are understood to be conscious from the outset, they could communicate what they imagine or conceive as social beings, as social semiotic agents. We can then put more weight on ‘set out from’, as the starting point of the Marxist hermeneutic (semiotic) journey, not a boundary to enquiry.

Paradoxically, most Marxist-influenced semiotic analysis does not conform to this protocol. For instance, Barthes’ virtuoso semiotics (1974) typically starts from signifying material, not concrete social practice. Critical ethnography ( e.g., Clifford and Marcus 1986) is not usually treated as either Marxist or semiotic, but relates to both. The object of ethnography, the ‘culture’ of an ‘ethnos’ or group, is in many respects similar to ideology as the object of analysis in Marxist semiotics of ideology.

Semiotics of ideology

There are many Marxist and non-Marxist works on ideology as a category for political analysis but this article will selectively concern developments in theories of ideology which are also semiotically interesting.

Forged in the unpropitious conditions of Stalinist Russia, Voloshinov’s fusion of semiotics and Marxism (1973) is still an exemplary achievement. The dual nature of ideology, inseparably a system of meaning and irreducibly social, formed his core premise: ‘Without signs there is no ideology […] Everything ideological possesses semiotic value’ (1973:9). He formulated the basic principle that incorporated Marx’s insistence on ‘real, active men’ into semiotic practice: ‘The form of signs is conditioned above all by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction.’ (1973:21)

From prison, an equally marginalised site, Gramsci (1971) reflected productively on limitations of classic Marxist theories of ideology in the light of failed political struggle (the triumph of Fascism). He realised that it was too simple to label the ideas of the enemy as ‘ideology’, instead of understanding the complex power and effect of ideas of different kinds. He escaped from the Marxist category of ideology by dispersing its meanings across a number of words, each capturing distinct aspects. ‘Hegemony’ referred to the amalgam of ideas through which ruling classes managed to win the majority’s consent. ‘Common sense’ referred to an even broader, heterogenous mix of ideas and attitudes, which ‘naturalised’ aspects of the status quo so that they seemed beyond question. Yet ‘common sense’ also contained seeds of an alternative popular reality. For Gramsci, a critique of ‘common sense’ could bring out contradictions, which could then play a part in a revolutionary struggle. Insofar as common sense is ideology, he attributes a function to ideological critique that Marx seemed to deny, but carried out extensively (e.g., in the 450 pages of German Ideology)

Because of ideology’s links with Marxism, few treatments of ideology use psychoanalytic traditions. Yet in Marx’s theory of ideology, dominated by the category of consciousness, the unconscious played a key role, since the effects of ideology include limitations of consciousness. Two influential writers on ideology used psychoanalytic ideas. Marcuse, mainly within a Marxist framework, was interested in the libidinal roots of the hold of ideology on its subjects. In One Dimensional Man: studies in the ideology of advanced capitalism (1968) he examined a kind of paralysis, as he saw it, induced in potentially revolutionary masses, especially in the USA, by particular ideological processes.

The semiotic interest here is that he examined complex processes by which some people fail to see meanings that are there, instead of the more typical semiotic interest only in producing and decoding meanings. >From this point of view he analysed forms of forms (e.g. newspaper conventions) and culture (especially popular culture). Although broad and sweeping, and open to criticism in detail, these paved the way for more obviously semiotic studies, such as Judith Williamson’s (1978) study of meaning and ideology in advertisements.

Zizek (1989) used semioticized psychoanalysis, following Lacan, rather than Marxism in his study of ideology, but the use of a psychoanalytic perspective on ideology at the same time opened up new tasks and territory for social semiotics. This perspective provided a more complex framework for illuminating analyses of items from political and popular culture, of the kind that play a major role in classic semiotics as in Barthes. By adding the social, political links of ideology to psychoanalytic concerns with the complex play of meaning between conscious and unconscious, Zizek offers an account of the dynamics of ideology and the strange power it can exert, which is missing from most Marxism and semiotics.

Althusser (1918-1990) claimed to be an orthodox Marxist, but his theory of ideology broke new ground by tacitly incorporating insights from semiotics and psychoanalysis. In fact his writings on ideology illustrate one main point of this article, that a strong theory of ideology needs good semiotics, along with a comprehensive grasp of social, political theory and practice.

Contesting the traditional emphasis on ideology as representation, true or false, he emphasised the relation to these representations as the site for problems, defining ideology in a striking phrase as a distorted representation of social reality but as representing ‘imaginary relations of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (1971:169). Even though this inversion of the traditional view is too neat to stand (like Marx’s simplistic camera obscura) he identified the semiosic processes of ideology as crucial sites, supporting the development in semiotics itself of a renewed interest in Peirce’s semiosis.

Against the unproductive binary that so often splits semiotics from social processes, he proposed an intermediary entity he called 'Ideological State Apparatuses' (ISAs). These were not disembodied forms of meaning, but material resources supported by the dominant society, ideologues (in Marx's sense) organised in groups, in institutions (e.g. church, education, law), supported by state-sanctioned force. In semiotic terms, this fills out a gap in semiotics around different scales of semiotic agency, larger than individuals, implicated in the totality of society. Since ISAs represent distinct interests, the version of ideology they represent will be different, even inconsistent, so that ideology cannot be expected to be unitary. This idea is a great advance on earlier Marxist ideas in which 'ideology' is understood to be the homogeneous body of thought of whatever is the current dominant group in society.

Yet Althusser still proposed an over-arching ideological unity which resolved, at this higher level, the unresolved contradictions he had noted at the level of the ISA. The problem with this principle of unity is that it is more metaphysical than concrete, becoming an act of faith for analysts, that contradiction is only apparent, and cannot in principle disrupt the ultimate triumph of the dominant. This leads to closed semiotic analysis, in which the outcome of the analysis is already given in advance by the theory. This semiotic weakness matches a flaw in his political analysis, which could not envisage real, successful resistance outside the Communist Party.

Even so, Althusser along with Gramsci made a significant advance by recognising how omnipresent contradiction is in ideology, seemingly absent from Marx's theories of ideology though it played so major a part in his other work. For semiotics, the idea that contradiction is constitutive of ideology is clearly presented in the concept of Ideological Complexes (Hodge and Kress 1988:3)

a functionally related set of contradictory versions of the world, coercively imposed by one social group on another on behalf of its distinctive interests, or subversively offered by another social group in attempts at resistance in its own interests.

In this formulation, ideology can come from 'below' as well as from 'above', with contradictions between groups as well as within them. There is no ultimate unity that is supposed to lie behind the diversity to super-impose the dominance of the dominant, yet there can be functional reasons, emerging from analysis of ‘real, active men’, for some contradictions that emanate from essentially the same class of semiotic agent. Appeals to social function are empirically-based. Unity and effectiveness are not given in advance. All these differences from Althusser allow a freer, more open semiotic analysis which is at the same time (and there is no contradiction here) better political, ideological analysis.

‘Ideology’ achieved its currency as a term in political, (ideological) debate, and most of its strengths and flaws come from that fact. It deals with social and political meanings, as realized in a multiplicity of forms, so that it has always been, implicitly or explicitly, a semiotic theory, in semiotic traditions that never saw themselves as such. While making these connections, as this article has tried to do, it is important never to lose the heterogeneity of these alternative traditions. Semiotics needs good bridges to major debates in which thought, meaning and consciousness are at stake. ‘Ideology’ serves this function well, and can only do so as a hybrid, with all its contradictions.


Althusser, L (1971). Lenin and philosophy. London: New Left Books

Bourdieu, P (1988). Homo Academicus. Cambridge: Polity.

Gramsci, A (1971). Prison Notebooks London.: Lawrence and Wishart.

Hodge, B and Kress, G (1988). Social semiotics. Cambridge: Polity

Hodge, B and Kress, G (1993). Language as ideology. London: Routledge.

Marx, K and Engels, F (1976). The German ideology. London: Progress Publishers.

Voloshinov, V (1873). Marxism and the philosophy of language. New York: Seminar Press

Williams, R (1977). Marxism and literature. London: Oxford University Press.

Williamson, J (1978). Decoding advertisements. London: Boyars.

Zizek, S (1989). The sublime object of ideology. New York: Verso.


Bob Hodge