Ideology/Ideologies -  a vocabulary.


Time and again you come across the word ‘ideology’ and you also often hear us say things like ‘the ideology of…’ It is such a familiar word to us as tutors that we don’t let you know what we mean when we say it. So we thought we would put together some notes about the CONCEPT of ideology and what strings of IDEAS typically make up certain IDEOLOGIES.


In a lot of the literature IDEOLOGY is used in one of 2 ways: 1) the IDEATIONAL ‘theory’ of ideology. 2) the MATERIAL-ist ‘theory’ of ideology.


The first approach is concerned mainly with the arrangement of ideas and beliefs which make up individual ideologies. In this case we can study ideologies simply as sets of beliefs and values; and thus compare ideologies in terms of their common or divergent beliefs.



The second approach emphasises the way ideologies are structured and mutually reinforcing sets of ideas that create, affect, control, and are embedded inside social and political reality. In this case, we can study ideologies in terms of what they do -  how they shape material reality.


The two views have much in common, but supporters of the second view would say that those who hold the ‘ideational’ view need to go the extra mile to say NOT ONLY what ideas make up an ideology, but also to say HOW those ideas – how that ideology - have affected the social, political, cultural relations of various societies, and the relations between classes and groups in societies.


So below, I take as my starting-point the ‘ideational’ view and then further on try to spell out the ways in which the ‘materialist’ view would extend, and in some aspects differ from the ideational view. As I have indicated most of my points about the ideational view would be shared by proponents of the materialist view; it is just that that ‘materialists’ would want to make some add-ons to the ideational view.


Let’s lay the basic points down then:


Ideology denotes a set of social and political ideas which are a) critical of other social and political ideas, systems, and values AND b) make prescriptions about how society and its values should be organised – offer a positive vision of the ‘good’ (a prescription of an ideal form of) society.


A particular ideology, (eg.  liberalism,) often criticises other viewpoints (eg. socialism, conservatism, Marxism, fascism) by starting with its own BASIC VALUE(s) and seeing whether other views incorporate that basic value. If they don’t, then the other view is not good enough. Of course, you then start arguing whether that particular ideology’s basic value is itself justified.

For instance:  One of LIBERALISM’s basic values or fundamental beliefs is that society should aim to maximise individual freedom. Thus LIBERALS will use this value as the test for the VALIDITY of other social and political ideologies. If they can show that, say, SOCIALISM or CONSERVATISM do not protect sufficiently, individual freedom, they will reject them.


But the SOCIALIST or the CONSERVATIVE will argue against the LIBERAL by saying that individual freedom may be important, but it is not the most important value ie. not absolutely basic, thus it is not the only test of the other competing ideologies and political ideas.


A socialist may agree with the liberal on some things, eg. that individual freedom is good in promoting creativity and artistic expression – (we do not want to be obliged to listen to only one kind of music – variety is the spice of life)…


BUT if individual freedom leads to a greedy me, me, me society of nobody caring for the poor or the elderly, then that is a bad society. The socialist would argue that the interests of the whole of society must be considered prior to the question of how much individual freedom there should be. Thus for the socialist, the welfare of society as a whole is more basic as a value than the liberal’s individual freedom.


The liberal and the socialist have different starting-points (primary or basic values) and thus from these will want different kinds of ‘good’ societies and politics using different policies.


The conservative traditionally stresses the primacy of social order and morality, and thus would argue that individual freedom can only be properly exercised when an individual’s actions do not lead to social disorder that wrecks the very society enabling individuals to have their freedom in the first place. Further, only when individuals have a sense of right and wrong can they be ‘individual’ (they know themselves and why they are doing what they are doing – self-reflection = making oneself individual). Only then can the individual exercise true freedom. Thus the preservation of social order and morality is more basic than (is a condition for) the liberal’s individual freedom.


Thus we can see that ideologies differ in terms of basic beliefs – this is what makes them ultimately INCOMPATIBLE.

I may share your basic belief, only I do not think it is basic – I do not value it as highly as you do, I therefore differ from you over this.

We may agree exactly on what are relevant beliefs (the range of beliefs) but differ in our valuation of each of them, and thus hold very different conceptions of what society should look like.



EACH IDEOLOGY HAS UNIT-IDEAS OR BELIEFS which are combined to form a story  - the ideology - of how life should be led by whole societies and the individuals within them.






WHAT IT DOES NOT DO is to explain how ideology really works – how ideologies function in the real world and affect us. How they are used to persuade, make, coerce us into doing things. How the values they endorse seep into our minds and become a framework of values for the conduct of our lives.


HOW DO IDEAS AFFECT REAL LIFE? We can see that this is a social and political issue (the values) AND a psychological one (how the ideas get inside our heads in the first place)


In this case we want to know what is the ‘material’ power of ideology. This is not simply about various groups of ideas, but is about the relation between ideas, as FORCES that shape political societies.


THIS IS OUR SECOND ‘THEORY’ OR CONCEPT OF IDEOLOGY – THE MATERIALIST (as opposed to the ideas-led or ideational) account.


The dispute about which is the right ‘theory’ of ideology is itself rooted in ideological disputes!!!


‘Materialists’ (often Marxists/neo-Marxists) argue that the ideational account tends to see an ideology as a set of ideas whose validity can happily be argued over in the seminar room. They say this ‘liberal intellectual’ ivory tower game of ideas ignores the real world historical struggles of classes of people who fought for their ideas against the oppressing dominant ideologies of the ruling class; of capitalism over socialism; of profit over decent working conditions. Here, the real world of ideology is said to be properly about the way ideas gain dominance by being embedded in (made part of) the routines of everyday life, and very often we just trot along with them barely noticing their impact.


This last point makes a link between ideology and deception, or as many say: false consciousness. Marxists’ account of ideology (a species of the materialist account) stresses the deceptive element in ideology. Ways of doing things (the everyday routines) are often the product of someone else’s ideas eg. routines of working in a factory = the bosses/capitalists’ rules. But these working procedures become so familiar to the workers, so ordinary, that they forget that the routines are a result (a function) of someone else’s power/rule-making. They just seem natural – “that’s just the way it is” (as if it could not be another way). THUS WHAT IS ACTUALLY THE RESULT OF SOMEONE ELSE’S SET OF IDEAS – IDEOLOGYAPPEARS TO BE part of the ‘NATURAL’ ORDER. The creation of an illusion of there being no alternative way of doing things or living life – this freezing of life into one ideological format is referred to as ‘reification’. We ‘reify’ life in this case.


In this case, people are unwitting victims of other people’s interests and power. The design of the houses we buy or live in, are a function of – they express – how other people (architects/urban planners) think modern life should be lived. Advertising and estate agents enthuse about how these houses will satisfy all our needs and wants and dreams. We are sold an ‘ideology’ – a set of ideas – a false consciousness about the perfect lifestyle, and sold the means to achieve it. A double whammy! In being told that the house will satisfy our needs/wants, it is being suggested that these needs/wants are natural – are always (but perhaps unconsciously) our own. They helpfully get revealed to us by the estate agent/therapist. And then the profit-makers clear up.


According to this analysis of ideology; the trick of ideology is:


to gain the compliance of people

where they do not see the bad that a society produces

because they are socialised into believing that that society

is the only way to organise life and/or it produces a good life for all.


The Marxist offers us a critical approach to analysing society, culture, and politics. The major tool is that of ‘ideology-critique’. That is to show how ideology deceives us into accepting values and lifestyles which are ultimately harmful to us and to society in general, eg. higher wages (= afford a lifestyle that has been designed for us) in a chemicals corporation as it becomes more profitable may mean more global pollution which in turn has long run bad effects on world ecology causing the deaths of thousands of people.


The assumption of the critical approach is that by showing up how ideology works, we show how the trick is done, and thus we are no longer deceived. In which case we can now see the truth of society. We now have an objective standpoint from which to work out how a better society can be created. We are free from the deceptions of the rulers. Thus there is a link between: ideology, ideology-critique, truth, and freedom. Big ideas huh?


Problem 1: can there be happy slaves? I may be shown how I am being enslaved to the will/ideas of others, and still wish to be enslaved in that system.


Problem 2: My personality type may not want to be free - I would become depressed and unhappy at being forced to be free from being told how to live. Thus given I have a great deal of self-understanding (I know my psychology only too well), would it be rational for me to choose to have my world upset and remade by the critics of ideology?


Problem 3: Ideology critique assumes that there is an objective set of ‘true’ values that takes the measure of false values. Are there such values?


Overall, this approach to social and cultural criticism is RADICAL = radix = roots = to tear up by the roots = to over-turn the power structure.


Despite this ‘marxist’ theory of ideology that emphasises the role of manipulating ideas and the embedding of them in society and gains compliance (and thus dominance) between the rulers and the ruled – we nevertheless, in everyday use, TEND TO THINK OF IDEOLOGY AS LOOSE FRAMEWORKS OF IDEAS AND VALUES WHICH SHAPE OUR THINKING AND THE CHOICES WE MAKE.


In this sense, unwittingly, we often adopt the ‘ideational’ view of ideology.


The point here, is that we need to be aware of at least these two approaches to the meaning of the term ‘IDEOLOGY.’




How the meaning of ‘ideology’ has been extended by media and cultural studies.


In our everyday talk, the term ‘ideology’ seems to have become synonymous with any old set of beliefs or identifiable ways (rituals?) of doing things. Indeed, in so far as ways of doing things or shared interests have evolved across time we call them a culture eg. consumer culture; ‘nike’ culture etc. but equally, in so far as they are ways of doing things – frameworks of value shaping our everyday ‘practices’ (doings) we use the word ‘ideology’ eg. consumer ideology and turn it into an ‘ism’ = consumerism. (remember: liberals – liberalism etc…)


This somewhat loose use of the term ideology has emerged from academics in sociology and cultural studies since the 1970s. Political Scientists have been more strict, using ideology to refer to structured sets of political beliefs, eg. liberalism, socialism, anarchism, conservatism, nationalism, Maoism, Leninism and so forth. This probably still remains the preferred use of the term in academic circles.


Sometimes, named ideologies are used, NOT to denote someone’s political beliefs, but rather to point to their attitudes and everyday outlooks by which they evaluate things. We may say “they are very liberal”, or “are you not being rather conservative about this?” or even “he’s a complete fascist on this…” Of course such claims can be linked in to the political definitions of the terms, but essentially they are used to indicate someone’s disposition. In these cases, to say someone is ‘liberal’ about something is to say that they are being open-minded and happy to let individuals make their own mind up on some issue or another. To say they are being ‘rather conservative’ is to say they are being a bit up-tight, perhaps rather moralistic and wanting society or government to set out what people should do.


These attitudes (psychological types?) chime in with the political meanings of the terms but, in the cases above, do not entail a commitment to some elaborate political programme built around a coherent set of liberal or conservative beliefs. People simply happen to be adopting attitudes/dispositions which can be described (captured) by terms of language we use when referring to beliefs, ideologies etc.

Some brief conceptual definitions of major political ideologies:


Conservatism: there should be some shared index of socially responsible and moral behaviour within a defined community (usually the nation-state – ‘the British way of life’ – thus the suspicion of multi-culturalism). Accommodate socio-political and cultural change (being pragmatic) but don’t rush things – resistance to change for changes’ sake -  dislike novelty, prefer the traditional, thus likes to conserve things if they appear to work. Suspicious towards utopian thinking eg.communism’ ‘pure individualism’ etc. Sympathetic to a capitalist economic system (because it works better than wholly state-run economies), but where capitalism disrupts social order and tradition, conservatives call for its regulation by the State. Conservatives believe that there should be a strong state that enhances social and moral stability, so that people will be able to determine their own individual forms of life in a responsible way that is not disruptive of others attempts to do the same.


Liberalism: said to emerge from 18th century ‘enlightenment’ thinking in France, Germany, and Scotland. Places emphasis upon the ideas that social and political structures are to be arranged so that they do not interfere with, and indeed should promote, the development of individual freedom and flourishing. Suspicious of the State which, the liberal says, has historically tended to curtail or oppress freedom, thus liberalism is moderately anti-Statist. Liberals have no great respect for tradition and doing things in a certain way because that is the way these things have always been done (thus anti-conservative). Argues that we should do things and have goals and purposes in the light of what reason tells us – what our intellect dictates, not what society may irrationally demand. Thus reason against tradition, and against mob-culture (populism). The liberal is forward-looking (a modern chap), like to improve things in line with bright ideas of reasoning. For him all individuals are of equal value, thus tends to be unsympathetic to class or elites. A bit of an intellectual and thus seen as being part of the intellectual ‘liberal’ elite. ie. not one of the workers. Tends to idle around as a university lecturer.


Marxism: claims that society is inevitably divided by the allocation of individuals into economic classes. Claims to like revolutions which put the previously oppressed people in charge – usually assumed to be the urban working class; tho’ in some countries, the peasants, eg. Chinese revolution 1949. Marxists argue that human history and social change is a result of economic class conflict between rulers and ruled; dominant and dominated – landlords and serfs in the time when feudalism was the main form of economic production. Later on it was between capitalists and workers (19th/20th C.) where the workers rose up to challenge the capitalists and overthrow them. At least this was the theory. Did not quite work out that way.


The point is that Marx (and he was a bright bloke even if you disagree with him) believed in HISTORICAL MATERIALISM. That is that human history divides up into periods characterised by the dominant form of economic production (feudalism, capitalism etc) which expresses the basic type of relation between social classes (eg. serf/landflord; capitalist/worker). These periods are known as ‘modes of production’ – thus the time of capitalism being the dominant form of economic relations in society, is known as the capitalist mode of production. If economic relations are about material relations = what and how we do things with real things and people (material) then the study of the forms of these (modes of production) as they change across time can be summed up as historical materialism. Marx and Marxists tend to assume that the State (government) work hand in glove with dominant interests to maintain their dominance.



The Marxist thinks that the exercise of power of one class over another, is morally wrong. Thus they want to achieve a society where there is no class conflict – classless society, and to do this an economic system is needed which does not encourage conflict and greed, where goods are allocated on the basis of need not banal wants or crude property rights (its mine and you’re not having it). Capitalism is seen as bad because it is about the striving for profit at the expense of others. It is inherently about economic conflict, and the gaining of advantage of one class over another. Marxists want a post-capitalist, post-class society which they call ‘communism’. 


To achieve communism you need a revolution, and to achieve this you need workers who know they are oppressed and sufficiently hacked-off to go into battle for their ideals of getting rid of their oppressors ie. the capitalists. This means that communists have to agitate and campaign to build a revolutionary working class. They have to get working class people to see that they are not just working class, but that they are members of an oppressed class. The communist then wants the working class, not just to be a class IN-ITSELF, but a class FOR-ITSELF. That is, the communists promotes class-consciousness (becoming aware of your real conditions of existence) so as to turn an alienated bored worker into an angry worker up for revolution.


The ideals of communism are to organise economic production (the administration of things not people) to minimise the working time (socially necessary labour time) of all, so as to maximise the time for individual freedom. This is supposed to enable man to become an integrated whole person, socially and psychologically, who is no longer ‘alienated’ from himself and others by the needless pursuit of consumer goods and fashion, or by the demands of others (the capitalist). The endless pursuit of wants and expansion of production of them is sometimes called ‘valorisation’.


Marxism – a bit of a history.


On our courses, for one reason or another, we seem to talk a lot about Marxism and left-wing conceptions of society and politics, so I thought I would write a short essay on the development and history of ‘marxism’ and neo-marxism.


Variants of Marxist ideology have largely come about because of the historical circumstances of real world Marxist politics itself.


‘Class’ struggles, that is the revolt of the populace against the rulers, of those who have not against those who have, of the mass against the elite, go back many centuries. (Slave revolts were known in ancient greek and roman times – circa 500 bc.)


Prior to the 18th century such struggles were more often political (and sometimes religious) than economic in character. That is, more a matter of challenges to the Government – the political rulers of the day, than an economic challenge to employers, eg. a violent demand for improved wages or just food. The massive expansion of industrial capitalism in the 19th century focussed the concerns of the proletariat (working class) upon employers rather than political rulers. Thus the rise of trade unions, and more generally working class movements, in the early 19th century, which spawned ideas about how to achieve a better form of life for the working-class, ie. the emergence of a working-class ideology.


The political and economic ideas that emerged from these working class movements were usually socialist in character. That is, the interests of the working class could best be served if they co-operated as a group of equals sharing and redistributing their worldly goods. Thus at the root of the socialist idea is the organisation of social and political life as a collective = collectivism. Some thought that political agitation (demos and writing booklets) would bring about political change such that a socialist government would eventually gain power. A ‘socialist’ government would plan and implement a socialist system on behalf of the workers. This was the reformist, gradualist approach.


Others including Karl Marx, his close friend, Friedrich Engels, and various anarchists thought reform inadequate in the face of the power of the ruling class and that of the capitalist. What was needed was not reform, but revolution and they created political movements to achieve this.


nb. Marxism is a particular type of socialism


There was a workers movement in the 19th century (1860s) – the ‘Ist International’ which split between followers of Marx and the followers of the anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin. The Marxist were dominant, but the Ist International collapsed; there were subsequently 2nd and a 3rd International workers movement which were relatively successful as revolutionary movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it was the Russian Revolution (also known as the Soviet or Bolshevik revolution) in October 1917 that really announced to the world the importance and success of the Marxist communist workers revolutionary movements. Led by Vladimir Ilyich LENIN and (of only slightly less importance) Lev Bronstein, known as TROTSKY and other revolutionary leaders from several political groups, the Russian revolution overthrew the royal family – the Czar, and the middle class ‘bourgeois’ government of the day – the Duma. After much political and military manoevering between 1917 and 1921, the Bolshevik forces and their military wing, the Red Army led by Trotsky, achieved political dominance over all the other revolutionary forces such as the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries (the SR’s)


Bolshevik ideology argued that the workers movement was to be LED by a top-down VANGUARD party of communist leaders or an elite (Lenin plus a few others). This doctrine was the Leninist twist to Marxism’s idea of a bottom-up workers-led revolution. Thus was born the ideological variant of ‘marxism-leninism’ which became the official ideology of the CPSU – Communist Party of the Soviet Union – until the whole lot collapsed in 1989.


After Lenin died of leukaemia in 1924, Stalin (real name: Josef Djugashivili) assumed the leadership of the CPSU – he became its General Secretary. But from being a member of a ‘board’ of leaders – a collective leadership, through vicious political battle with Trotsky and others, he gained total dominance over the Politburo (the ‘board’) and became a kind of supreme leader. This utter devolution of all decision and power upon Stalin led to him being regarded as one of the great but worst Dictators of the 20th century. Upon his people he visited executions and imprisonments in Siberia a.k.a. ‘The Great Terror’. The late 1920 and 1930s were years of political paranoia inside the Soviet Union, and a striving by it to compete with and spy on the West. Stalin’s twin ambitions were to destroy all semblance of political opposition to himself and the development of industrialisation in the USSR. The focus on building a socialist economy left the other side of soviet life: art, music, high culture, as a backwater issue. Stalin himself did not like modern high culture especially modern music and painting – he was conservative about these things – but other non-soviet Marxists did like these things and began to write about them, notably the Frankfurt School.


Thus, concentrating on economic conditions of the workers did not leave a lot of time for being concerned about the role of culture within Marxism and Marxist theory. However, by the 1920s some Marxists in Germany at Frankfurt University became interested in the relation between culture and ideology and their ideas and writings took Marxism down another route – Neo-marxism by changing the emphasis from economic to cultural analysis. This Frankfurt school, more generally known as the Critical Theorists (see notes above on ideology-critique), was led notably by Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor Adorno.


As well as new version of Marxist thought being developed in Germany, one also needs to note new thinking within the Italian Communist party coming from its leadership of Togliatti, and especially Antonio Gramsci, who was jailed for several years by the italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini.


Their ideas influenced a later generation of Western European Marxists who were appalled by the Stalin’s Russia between the late 20s and 1953 when Stalin died.


Millions died or were murdered under Stalin, and even after his death critics within Russia were put away, and the countries that surrounded Russia were wholly under Soviet influence and dominated by Russian versions of communist ideology (a.k.a. the Eastern Bloc/Warsaw Pact/Iron Curtain countries).


At the beginning of the Second World War (1939-45), Stalin made a pact with Hitler, but turned against Hitler and joined with Britain under Churchill, and the USA under Roosevelt (the Allied Powers), for the duration of the second world war. After the war, many European countries’ boundaries were re-drawn. Under various political settlements the USSR established a political influence over a large part of Eastern and Central Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary etc.) It was becoming clear that the USSR had ambitions to dominate Europe, which especially worried the USA and the UK. This ‘soviet threat’ formed the basis for the Cold War. The Cold war period from the late-1940s to the end of the 1980s was about ideological conflict and the waving of ideological symbols in favour of either capitalism or communism as the best ways of life. It was also about the struggle for superiority, economically and militarily, between America and USSR (= Union of Soviet Socialist Republics =Soviet Union =Russia).


When Hungary tried to change its government to a more democratic form in 1956, Russia sent in the tanks to stop this process of political reform. The rest of the world was appalled but did nothing (it could have led to nuclear war). However, this led to a collapse in membership of Western European communist parties that had been originally inspired by the Soviet Revolution and its ideology. Abandoning Soviet Marxism after 1956, many former western communist party members looked for ideological alternatives (a ‘new left’) to the soviet version of Marxist communism and, as indicated above, found it in the writings of the Frankfurt school and also in the writings of some French neo-marxist thinkers such as Louis Althusser.  Some turned to Maoism – the marxist ideology of China, and others to the ideas of Trotsky (who had been forced into exile by Stalin, and had turned against Stalin’s state-run communism. He was murdered by Stalin’s agents, Mexico, 1940).


If the USSR did communism no favours in 1956 (and again by invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 to stop the ‘Prague Spring’ democracy movement), America in the 1960s did capitalist democracy no favours as it escalated the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. This was a war between South Vietnam, massively supported by the USA, and North Vietnam under the communist guerrilla leader Ho Chi Minh. The aim was to maintain US influence in South East Asia and stop the spread of Soviet or Chinese ‘communism’. The violence of US forces and the deaths of many US soldiers – the general mayhem of this war undermined faith in the US political system and led to anti-statist and anti-capitalist attitudes especially amongst youth and students – the counter-culture. See the film Apocalypse Now! to get some sense of all this.


In other words almost as a direct result of the American involvement in Vietnam, many adopted a sympathy towards left-wing ideas, and socialism and marxism in particular. The left-wing suspicion of an almost conspiratorial relation between corporate capitalism, the state, the CIA=state security services, and the military, known in the 1960s as the ‘military-industrial complex’ still hangs in the air.


The neo-marxist, new left alternatives to soviet-style Marxism proved popular with students and academics in an expanding universities sector in the 1960s in the US and Europe. Fuelled by Marxist and anarchist ideas, there was a massive set of demonstrations in France in May 1968 (‘les evenements’). Across Europe there were student protests about everything from imperialism and capitalism to the right to have sexual relationships in halls of residence. Some students tried to ally themselves with the oppressed worker, and thus see their protests as part of the long history of working class struggles (a dodgy argument).


In the 1960s there emerged especially in France and Germany a host of significant intellectuals whose writing was made more widely available through translation and publication in the ‘new left’ journals that had grown up in the wake of the crisis of left and Marxist ideas after the soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. There was a ready market for these radical political and philosophical ideas.


Thinkers who came to prominence were:

Roland Barthes (in ‘50s – a little bit marxist, but turned to psychoanalysis in late 60s

Louis Althusser (important marxist intellectual; famous for his theory of ideology)

Jurgen Habermas (German ‘critical theorist’ (Adorno’s student) but drifted away from Marxism to draw on the ideas of the late 18thC philosopher Immanuel Kant.)

Michel Foucault (French historian of ideas, radical non-marxist theorist of power.)

Jacques Lacan (influential non-marxist radical psychoanalyst)

Jacques Derrida (post-structuralist philosopher famous for ‘inventing’ deconstruction.

Gilles Deleuze (French post-structuralist philosopher)

Julia Kristeva (literary theorist and feminist psychoanalyst)


(note: many of the ‘isms’ mentioned above were adopted as strategies for escaping from the stranglehold of marxist theory, and in finding alternatives to Marxism, the various thinkers were deliberately challenging established Marxist and communist party positions. You have to appreciate that for many radically minded people, at least in Europe (not Britain), being left-wing, a marxist, and at least sympathetic to communism was a default position in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Marxism (and  membership of a Marxist political group) offered a clear sense of identity as being ‘anti-capitalist’ and for the workers. For many on the political left, the new very complicated, yet radical ideas of  people like Foucault and Derrida lacked political guts as they danced with ideas rather than engaging with hard political reality and struggle.


Most of the above were not Marxists as such, but were influenced by or responding to Marxist theory. Nearly all of them started out when young students as ‘marxists’ in some way of another (it was common in the 1950s in France for young intellectuals to join the Communist party), but most abandoned the CP and Marxism by travelling down other theoretical roads which were often more ‘radical’ – more challenging of social, economic, ideological or cultural POWER - than even Marxism.


Their ideas came to even more prominence in the 1970s and 1980s because more and more of their work was translated into English and was available to USA and UK audiences. However, there was an older generation of intellectuals who did their best work between 1925 and 1955 such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Georgy Lukacs, and the Frankfurt school. The latter two were Marxist, and the ‘existentialist’ Sartre became one around 1950. (note Heidegger, was NOT a Marxist, but his thought (called: existential phenomenology) was and still is massively important to the work of the list above, especially Derrida, Foucault and Lacan) This older generation are still as massively influential upon thinking as the members of the list above, and indeed set the terms of many of the debates followed through by people like Habermas or Derrida etc.


In Britain, via the formation of New Left Review, and its publishing arm New left Books (later ‘Verso’ books), the work of Louis Althusser in particular became influential. His ‘structuralist marxist’ analysis of capitalism and of Marx’s work was taken up by the likes of Stuart Hall, a major force in the development of cultural studies. Stuart Hall became Prof. in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University, and is perhaps best known in media studies for his Althusser and Barthes inspired article: Encoding/Decoding. This became a classic of neo-marxist and semiotic media analysis.


Across the 1970s, as strikes and radical union action in Britain, especially in the car industry, destroyed the Conservative government under Edward Heath, Marxist theory and intellectuals hit a high point in academia. Under Thatcher intellectual Marxism in Britain went into slow decline.


Marxist ideas were persistently strong in France, Italy and Germany where communist parties had regenerated themselves after the 1950s and had pulled away from the dogmas of Soviet marxist communism. Euro-Communism was the fashion amongst people on the left of politics.


In the USSR itself, once the cradle of successful revolution, there were no theoretical innovations in marxist theory. To get a university degree you had to pass an exam in Marxism-leninism. This was a matter of repeating Marxist mantras from a standard text-book written by some old hack. In the USSR communism as a living ideology and hope was actually moribund. The soviet political system and those of the eastern bloc as a whole collapsed in 1989.


As practical politics, Marxism and communism have been non-starters for years, but Marx’s and marxisms analysis of capitalism, and the forms of life and culture resulting from it, are intellectually formidable and insightful.