This term has a long, complex, and extraordinarily rich history. As a specifically sociological concept, it originated in the work of Karl Marx, and to this day its deployment in a particular sociological analysis remains a sign that such analysis is either Marxist or strongly influenced by Marxism.
This said, it is important to bear in mind that the social phenomenon to which the concept refers-the realm of ideas or culture, in general, and that of political ideas or political culture more specifically-together with the relationship between the realm of ideas and those of politics and economics, have also been discussed at length within other sociological traditions. What is more, these other discussions (especially those amongst Weberians, Durkheimians, and structuralisms), have not infrequently had a considerable impact on Marxist conceptualizations of ideology (as well as vice versa).
Much of the complexity of the concept’s history, and therefore the difficulties encountered by those who are asked to define it, is a consequence of the underdeveloped and partial nature of Marx’s various fragmentary and sometimes conflicting discussions of the phenomenon to which it refers. In The German Ideology (1846), Marx was concerned to explain not simply why he was no longer a Hegelian idealist of any kind, but also why he and so many others had for so long been in the thrall of such ideas.
In essence, and putting to one side all the ambiguities that subsequent commentators have reasonably and unreasonably claimed to descry, his argument was that the principal substantive tenet of idealism (namely the belief that ideas were the motive force of history) was not in any sense reason’s final coming to consciousness of itself; rather, this tenet was the product of a history that had hitherto been hidden from view, especially from that of intellectuals like himself, and as such it was an ideological doctrine.
This hidden history was that history of ‘real, active men’ that he was soon to refer to as the ‘history of class struggles’, and the reason it had proved to be particularly difficult for the intellectuals to discern was because, to paraphrase Marx, they tended to be concerned with the ruling ideas of the epoch, which as in any epoch were the ideas of the ruling class.
In European history’s chronology of the transformation of society and ideas is the Enlightenment, a major event of intellectual history beginning roughly after the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and ending with the French Revolution a century later. Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Goethe, Schiller and many other thinkers of abiding importance were among the followers of the philosophy of Enlightenment.
They proceeded from the first assumption that enlightened individual consciousness would have a decisive role in the elimination of social wrongs and vices. Their aim was to spread ideas of goodness, liberty, justice and scientific knowledge.
Despite their differences, the common points could be taken as a materialist view of human beings, relentless optimism about man’s progress through education and some utilitarian notions about society and ethics. The linkage of the Enlightenment philosophies with the ethos of capitalism is revealed as the account of their main principles of social life and organization.
Such common denominators of the Enlightenment thought are autonomy of individuals, freedom, the equality of all men, the universality of law, inviolability of contract, toleration and the right to private property. It is noteworthy that the aforesaid elements are essential for a system of market exchange. The idealized social norms of the Enlightenment then imply an all-round accreditation of capitalism. Hence, the History is based on ideologies.