Ideology, Between the Concept and the Political Reality1

[Romanian Academy]

This paper begins with the premise that the issue of the relationship between the concept and the political reality in the case of ideology can be explained by using the analysis of two important terms pertaining to contemporary political theory. On the one hand, we take into consideration the term political doctrine, and, on the other, the term of political ideology itself. The semantic and conceptual relationship established between the two terms has often been marked by an identification which was not entirely justified. Therefore, we need to compare the two concepts in order to delimit their meanings as precisely as possible. What I intend to show is that ideology lays a given axiology at the basis of the politics that it aims to promote in reality.

Keywords: ideology; political reality; conservatorism; ideological analysis; politics; political


1. The conceptual analysis of ideology

The issue of the relationship between the concept and the political reality in the case of ideology may be explained by using two important terms from contemporary political theory. On the one hand, we refer to the term political doctrine, and on the other, to the term political ideology itself. The semantic and conceptual relationship between the two terms has often been marked by an identification which was not entirely justified. As a result, we should compare the two concepts in order to delimit their meanings as clearly as possible. In this respect, it should be noted that both some works of political theory and, especially, the actual aspects of socio-political life may take an ideological form. Going further, we may think that ideology represents one of the expressions specific to politics and the political. Yet, when we refer to ideology we need to make a clear distinction between this notion and the term doctrine. Thus, as Bernard Crick suggests, political doctrine „refers to a coherent sum of assertions regarding what a particular topic should be”2. From this viewpoint, liberalism, conservatism, and socialism, for instance, are understood by specialists as political doctrines.

In order to make even clearer the distinction between political doctrines and ideologies, we could say that the former have a much more specific nature than the latter insofar as they focus on a narrow scope of action. Ideology seems to always have totalising tendencies and, based on this, it is perceived, as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi points out, as „a systematised and relatively hierarchical set of opinions. (...) In fact, ideology is more general than a doctrine, being a universal way of interpreting reality, from which derives the interpretation of political reality”3. We could say that within the framework of contemporary political reality, ideology stands in the proximity of political philosophy but is not confounded with it. The clear-cut separation between ideological discourse and philosophical-political discourse becomes visible when we focus on the two types of judgements privileged by each of these two distinct forms of thought. Thus, political philosophy operates par excellencewith formal judgements, which are based on the criterion of the coherence which links the meanings of constituent terms, and on the respect of logical rules of inference. On the other hand, ideology, as a specific form that may be taken by politics, prefers evaluative judgements, which are usually expressed by moral imperatives which do not obey alethic criteria (truth and falsity). When the discourse specific to political philosophy leans towards a motivational approach to the political arrangements deemed to be good, and a negative approach to those forms of organisation understood as improper for the human condition, „political philosophy leaves aside formal judgements in order to exercise evaluative thought. Grounding politics in a particular moral value, transformed into an absolute criterion of public good, political philosophy slides into ideology”4.

We therefore notice that ideology lays a particular axiology at the basis of the politics that it aims to promote in reality. Ideology acts, first of all, based on the axiological scale that already exists in society and thus renders it relative, and then it imposes its own values and makes them absolute. Ideology thus oscillates incessantly between the relativisation of the values specific to a society that it sees as immoral, and the absolutisation of the values of a society that it seeks to impose as a model, a society which is deemed to be desirable. This is why it seems to be, Anton Carpinschi and Cristian Bocancea stress out, „an ensemble of convictions and expressions symbolic in nature, which allow for the presentation, assessment and interpretation of the world according to a particular level which is preferred by a thinker, a social class, a regime, a culture or a historical age”5. In this context, I would add, besides the descriptive, evaluative, and interpretative aspects of ideology, the actional aspect, whichimposes, in my opinion, a clear-cut distinction between political ideology and doctrine.This is an aspect which was also highlighted by the definition of ideology advanced by the Dictionnaire de la pensée politique. Hommes et idées: „a matrix of thought which offers us the instruments and the arguments needed to justify a political regime or a form of action, and to deconstruct and discredit others6”.

Therefore, we recognise as an essential element, in the case of ideology, the actional aspect, which is absent in the case of doctrine. Of course,a political doctrine may have ideological claims, identifiable at the level of the programmes of some political parties which claim to belong to that doctrine. Yet, political doctrines are par excellence a type of theoretical discourse, which plays the role of deciphering the philosophical grounds of a particular political orientation. The doctrinarian nature of a given politics refers to the reflective aspects of the political, to its abstract, mainly philosophical orientation so that, finally, it becomes ready to describe and put forth the specific mechanisms which feed the imagining of a „better” society.  Thus, the stress is put on what the politically organised society should be and not on what it actually is. Moreover, a particular political doctrine has the role of laying the foundations of the political identity of a particular social group, by advancing a set of values that individuals can freely embrace. Doctrine puts forth an axiological orientation but it does not impose it through impulsive means. Going a step further, we may say that an individual’s or a social group’s adhesion to a particular political doctrine highlights a particular personal character trait or a group’s personality trait.This is because a doctrine systematises a set of rationally elaborated values, which provide a sense of continuity to the people or the groups which embrace it. While ideology is supposed to have a „revolutionary” nature, a political doctrine may become „radical” only in particular historical and political circumstances. This is why, even if they are borne in a philosophical setting, being ontologically grounded, doctrines can claim a specificity of scientificity, a position on a meta-theoretical level. On the contrary, besides the fact that it offers a more ample space of analysis, ideology has a direct relationship with political action and with the actual relationships of power.

2. Case study: conservatism, from an ideological concept to the political reality

The British political philosopher Robert Nisbet defines conservative ideology as a traditional class regime7. It is tradition which has guided the entire intellectual trajectory of conservatism, a fact which is easy to acknowledge if we bear in mind that we are talking about a quintessentially British ideology. Tradition does not recognise the equality promoted by liberals, not even when this equality refers to the chances of entering the political or economic competition. On the contrary, as Sorin Cucerai emphasises, „the traditional class regime is based on (...) a grand hierarchical view of the world. This view is organic; it is generated by a descriptive and analogical mode of thinking, not by a mechanical, rationalist one. It is obvious that such a regime relies on the principle of the basic inequality of people”8.

Therefore, conservatism develops a specific type of rationality, which opposes any radical measures that are not suited for the traditionalist way of interpreting the world. As Adrian-Paul Iliescu emphasises, this view can be summarised by the conservative adage put forth by viscount Falkland, who believed that „where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change”9. The same attitude is to be found in the seminal work of conservative ideology, Reflections on the Revolution in France, written by the British politician and Edmund Burke, who condemned the French radicalism a year after the 1789 Revolution, showing that „Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer who have broken prison upon the recovery of his natural rights?”10 Such a discourse emphasises the attitude embraced by any conservative who has to deal with radical news, which he rejects, preferring change when it occurs as an individual’s or a society’s need to adapt to those particular problematic situations. Although it does not encompass a programmatic agenda, a „catechism”, conservatism is identifiable there where rationality becomes manifest not through the application of abstract solutions, which bear no connection to human or social reality, but by an effective and empirical analysis of the possibilities of action, so that, at the end, it would be possible to adjudge the most prompt solution. However, bearing in mind the analysis of conservative ideology conducted by Adrian-Paul Iliescu11, we can infer a series of philosophical and political suppositions which lie at the basis of this intellectual construct.

First, we are dealing with cognitive suppositions, which bring to the fore both the tradition of Stoic logic, which relied on nominalism, and the British philosophical tradition, marked by the presence of empiricism. These elements shaped the following cognitive suppositions: a) diffidence towards abstractions – imposes a distinction between the continental tradition and the British tradition of thought12by showing that while the former uses abstractions such as the concepts of freedom, justice, equality, truth, good, etc., the latter believes that all these are nothing but artificial constructs, whose content is not found in reality. The former leaves from Plato and Aristotle while the latter lays gnoseological foundations for conservatism, insisting on the need to put abstractions aside, as they lead to a useless complication of human knowledge; b) mental constructs as a source of error – insists on the empirical mode of studying reality, be it political or historical, a type of approach which may avoid errors. In the case of continental rationalism, error stems – via Descartes – from the lack of something which should have been present in the human mind. Or, as Adrian-Paul Iliescu points out, „on the contrary, for empiricists, it is not the lack of general ideas but their presence, or the excess of mental constructs, that is the main cause of error”13. Mental constructs, forged by human reason, are therefore dangerous because at the level of knowledge they lead to errors, and at the socio-political level they generate the social engineering, which makes possible the emergence of experiments whose finality often eludes the control of those who initiate them. In order for the process of knowledge to be authentic, conservatives suggest through the voice of empiricism, it must develop organically so that abstractions, general theories be constantly connected both to reality and to other theories, as they may prove to be falsifiable, at a given moment; c) ignorance and the fallibility of reason – each individual should be aware of the fallibility of his/her reasoning, of the fact that, through the excessive use of abstractions, reason may slip into error. At the political level, this is what made possible the justification of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, which have always been based on humanistic principles, such as those of social freedom and equality, but which failed due to the impossibility of their being applied in praxis; d) the unpredictability of future – the course of historical, social, political or economic events is not predictable, because it is impossible to establish laws relative to the evolution of the human society based on which it would be possible to make predictions about the future. Any claim at predictability is unjustified; in fact, it can only be a dangerous prophecy, regardless of whether we are talking about the evolution of the human society towards a liberal or a socialist model. We can only observe the recurrence of particular experienced from the past but this does not allow us – as David Hume noticed – to know how the future would look like. It is impossible to make rational analogies between the past and the future because, as Burke showed, „the omnipresence of the surprise-fact is the natural result of the changing nature of all things”14; e) anti-intellectualism – knowledge cannot be universal, as rationalists think, because to support this idea means to advance an unjustified claim. Yet, in the case of empiricist and conservative thinking the underlying cause is not gnoseological pessimism. On the contrary, empiricists are optimistic but they show moderate gnoseological optimism, based on – as we have seen above – the idea of the fallibility of reason. This is why they prefer to refer to particular things, which are the object of practical knowledge (knowing how), not of technical knowledge (knowing that), to use the terms made famous by the epistemologist Gilbert Ryle and then taken over by a contemporary conservative theorist, Michael Oakeshott15; f) the supremacy of experience – represents, we believe, the sum of the cognitive suppositions encompassed by the political ideology of British conservatism, which has emphasised, ever since the modern age, that reason creates idols in the attempt to discover the essential elements of knowledge. On the contrary, scientific truth may be discovered by experiences, the latter being the main source from where our ideas are borne. Just like in the case of knowledge, at the political level, society develops organically, passing through repeated trials and errors due to which, over time, tradition itself is built. As Adrian-Paul Iliescu notices, „at the political level, the supremacy of experience is matched by the supremacy of tradition. Just like experience, tradition is not infallible, but having grown «organically» and having been verified in time, it is our main guiding”16.

Second, we are dealing with a series of ontological suppositions, the ones which offer substance to conservative ideology, and which are substantiated by several aspects. First, we recognise here an extension of the conservative and empiricist conservative conception, as conservative thinkers believe that it is not reason that characterises human nature, but on the contrary, passions.Reason creates artefacts while human feelings and instincts create natural traditional customs, which impose themselves by their authority. Experience and tradition are the ones which lead man towards what is natural, leading him away from the traps of the idols forged by nature. The authority of tradition also imposes itself at the political level, showing that the elites are the ones which are supposed to impose their will on the ignorant masses. Moreover, a conception of political society also forms based on these ontological presuppositions. From this perspective, the political theorists Terence Ball and Richard Dagger claim that „the political society is not a mere collection of people; it is a living and constantly changing being, a whole which is bigger than the sum of its components. In this organic conception of society individuals relate to society just as the heart, the eyes and the arms relate to the body – not as separate units (as in the case of the atomist conception of society, preferred by liberal ideology) but as the parts of a living being”17.

Third, we are dealing with a series of moral suppositions, which attempt to nuance, as Adian-Paul Iliescu shows, the idea that „moral attitude cannot be separated from the way in which man, its nature and that of its behaviour, institutions, society and lifestyles are seen”18. Without pretending to promote a moral theory, conservative ideology nevertheless states that, as man is likely to make abuses, due to the passions which are naturally his, he must be (morally, legally, etc.) compelled to obey authorities. Along with property, authority is one of the basic concepts of conservatism. Authority is represented, first of all, by tradition, and then by the social codes rooted in the social context. Even the contemporary theorists of conservatism, such as Oakeshott, Voegelin and Russell Kirk claim that, although state power has the obligation to „intervene as less as possible in the economic, social, and moral field”, thus keeping the idea of a private sphere and of the need to limit the abusive intrusion of the state into it, it is nevertheless compelled – in Robert Nisbet’s view – „to act as much as possible in order to strengthen and amplify the functions held by the family, the local community, and volunteer-based associations”19. We notice here the stress put on the relationship between the state and the civil society, the latter being formed by the so-called intermediate groups, which mediate the relationship between the individuals and the state. Among them, the most important ones are the family, the Church and the local community, as they are the ones which provide specific roles for each individual, and thus submit their members to the authority of tradition.

Finally, we may say that conservative ideology is mainly characterised by a three-fold plea: a) a plea for tradition, based on which history is conceived as an evolution in what regards human experience. As Nisbet shows, this view is based on the „belief that, regardless how old a system, a modus vivendi is, it still can play a vital function, of which men can take advantage, either from a psychological or from a sociological viewpoint”20; b) a plea for freedom, which is asserted through the clear distinction between freedom and equality. Thus, while the former plays the fundamental part of defending property, an essential principle of conservatism, which included both the spiritual and the material goods of individuals and their families, the latter seeks to impose – Nisbet claims  - „a certain redistribution or levelling of the material and spiritual values unevenly spread in a community”21; c) a plea for an organic evolution, whose role is to underline the rejection of the model of the utopian social engineering, which pursuits a radical reorganisation or reconstruction of society, according to a predetermined purpose, and the preference for a model of gradual engineering, which is carried out through successive reforms.  Conservatives believe that complete and sudden social change is a veritable illusion. As the political philosopher Karl Popper shows, „the supporter of gradual engineering will adopt (...) the method of identifying and fighting against the most pressing ills of society, and not that of searching the supreme and ultimate good, and of fighting for its attainment”22.

Of course, conservative ideology must also face some criticism. Yet, beyond this, it remains one of the most important philosophical-political contributions of modern times, which still has a strong impact today. This is why we believe that a complete overview of conservatism should also include, even in an abridged form, the neoconservative movement, which emerged in the 20th century. Neoconservative views crystallised around the ideas promoted by authors such as Daniel Baell, Nathan Glazer, John Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who have been considered to be, quintessentially, followers of liberalism who were nevertheless disappointed by the failure of its programs that targeted welfare. According to neoconservatives, people are defined by the culture to which they belong, and, as a result, the cultural values of left-wing or feminist orientations are rejected, because it is believed that they would bring decadence into the social area. Moreover, neoconservatism is very close to liberal scepticism in what regards the state’s area of influence, underlining – as Terence Ball and Richard Dagger show – that „government tries to do too much, and this only makes matters worse, instead of making them better. The moment has come for the government to do less for people in order to encourage them to do more for themselves”23. Such considerations imply the idea that individuals should be made socially responsible because, due to the economic prosperity made possible by capitalism, they reach a stage when they believe themselves to be capable of doing anything. The unlimited desire provoked in people by the capitalist society, that of having everything hic et nunc, is also reflected in others areas of socio-political life. This is because politics, economics, and culture are interconnected, and this allows the neoconservatives to draw the conclusion – also shared by Ball and Dagger – according to which „anyone who wishes to keep the existing social and political arrangements should have in mind cultural changes – and maybe even attempt to strengthen the cultural link”24.


BALL, Terence, DAGGER, Richard Dagger, Ideologii politice şi idealul democratic, Iaşi: Editura Polirom, 2000.
CARPINSCHI, Anton, BOCANCEA, Cristian, Ştiinţa politicului. Tratat, Iaşi: Editura Universităţii „Al. I. Cuza”, 1998.
CRICK, Bernard, Socialismul, Bucureşti: Editura Du Style, 1998.
ILIESCU, Adrian-Paul, Conservatorismul anglo-saxon, Bucureşti: Editura All, 1994.
ILIESCU, Adrian-Paul, SOLCAN, Mihail-Radu (coord.), Limitele puterii, Bucureşti: Editura All, 1994.
MUNGIU-PIPPIDI, Alina (coord.), Doctrine politice. Concepte universale şi realităţi româneşti, Iaşi: Editura Polirom, 1998.
NISBET, Robert, Conservatorismul, Bucureşti: Editura Du Style, 1998.
POPPER, Karl, Societatea deschisă şi duşmanii săi, Bucureşti: Editura Humanitas, 1993.
*** Dictionnaire de la pensée politique. Hommes et idées, Paris: Hatier, 1989.



1 ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This paper was made within The Knowledge Based Society Project supported by the Sectoral Operational Programme Human Resources Development (SOP HRD), financed from the European Social Fund and by the Romanian Government under the contract number POSDRU ID 56815.
2 Bernard Crick, Socialismul [Socialism] (Bucharest: Du Style Publishing, 1998), 6.
3 Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (coord.), Doctrine politice. Concepte universale şi realităţi româneşti [Political doctrines. Universal concepts and Romanian realities] (Iaşi: Polirom Publishing, 1998), 9.
4 Anton Carpinschi, Cristian Bocancea, Ştiinţa politicului. Tratat [The Science of Politics. Treatise] (Iaşi: „Al. I. Cuza” University Press, 1998), 100.
5 Carpinschi, Bocancea, Ştiinţa politicului..., 100.
6 *** Dictionnaire de la pensée politique. Hommes et idées (Paris: Hatier, 1989), 382.
7 Robert Nisbet, Conservatorismul (Bucharest: Editura Du Style, 1998).
8 Sorin Cucerai, în Mungiu-Pippidi, Doctrine politice..., 11.
9 Adrian-Paul Iliescu, în Mungiu-Pippidi, Doctrine politice..., 73.
10 Edmund Burke, în Adrian-Paul Iliescu, Mihail-Radu Solcan (coord.), Limitele puterii [The Limits of Power] (Bucharest: All Publishing, 1994), 66.
11 Adrian-Paul Iliescu, Conservatorismul anglo-saxon [Anglo-Saxon Conservatism] (Bucharest: All Publishing, 1994).
12 Iliescu, Conservatorismul..., 83.
13 Iliescu, Conservatorismul..., 94.
14 Iliescu, Conservatorismul..., 121.
15 Iliescu, Conservatorismul..., 133-146.
16 Iliescu, Conservatorismul..., 155.
17 Terence Ball, Richard Dagger, Ideologii politice şi idealul democratic [Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal] (Iaşi: Polirom Publishing, 2000), 102.
18 Iliescu, Conservatorismul..., 172.
19 Nisbet, Conservatorismul, 63.
20 Nisbet, Conservatorismul, 52.
21 Nisbet, Conservatorismul, 72.
22 Karl Popper, Societatea deschisă şi duşmanii săi [The Open Society and its Enemies] (Bucharest: Humanitas Publishing, 1993), 183.
23 Ball, Dagger, Ideologii politice..., 119.
24 Ball, Dagger, Ideologii politice..., 121.


DANIEL ȘANDRU – Bursier postdoctoral al Academiei Române, Filiala Iași. Este Conferențiar universitar doctor la Facultatea de Științe Politice și Administrative a Universității „Petre Andrei” din Iași, unde deține funcția de Președinte al Senatului. A publicat Reinventarea ideologiei (Premiul „Ion Petrovici” al Academiei Române, Premiul Revistei „Sfera Politicii”, Premiul pentru Filosofie Politică al Revistei „Transilvania”) și a coordonat volumele Mass-media și democrația în România postcomunistă, Totalitarismul. De la origini la consecințe (împreună cu Sorin Bocancea) și Sinteze de știință politică (împreună cu Cristian Bocancea).




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