George Walford: Systematic Ideology

In ordinary and academic usage ‘ideology’ refers to a system of ideas adopted or set up in furtherance of some interest, usually the interest of a social group playing or believed to be playing a political role. It is a conception which minimises the significance of ideology and the importance of ideological study. If an ideology is (intentionally or otherwise) adopted to serve an interest then in order to understand the ideology fully we need to know what governs that interest, and at this point we reach the limits of the ordinary theories of ideology. They take the view that interests (and therefore the ideology adopted – according to them – to further those intentions) are governed by non-ideological factors, usually either the class position or the personality of the person or group concerned. The result is that most so-called ideological studies would be better described as studies of either class relations or of psychology; their distinctive ideological content is usually trivial.

Systematic ideology takes the term in a deeper sense. It is not interests that determine ideology; ideologies influence interests, and ideologies are not to be adequately understood by reference to non-ideological factors. They influence one another and the major ones, those which sway societies, develop out of one another.

If this be accepted it follows that an ideology is more than an effect of personality or class position, or any other non-ideological influence. If one ideology develops out of another then the new one is, partially at least, a consequence of the old; it is also in a sense the completion of it, and if ideologies influence each other in these ways then in order to understand one we need to study the others. It is no longer sufficient to know about the sources of ideology, whatever these may be; we have to study ideology itself. Ideology becomes a field of study in its own right, a field possessing a degree of independence comparable to that enjoyed by biology and psychology. For a complete understanding of it we still need to study the associated fields, as complete understanding of biology requires study of chemistry and physics, but this becomes secondary. As the psychologist now studies primary psychology, and the biologist biology, so the ideologist studies primarily ideology.

from Ideological Commentary 12, August 1984.