Not all political thinkers have accepted that ideas and ideologies are of importance. Politics has sometimes been thought to be a naked struggle of power — realpolitik.
If this true, political ideas are merely propaganda, a form of words/collection of slogans designed to garner popular support and obtain legitimacy. In that regard, ideologies are simply “window dressing” used to conceal the stark reality of political life. This is a position supported by behaviourism, the school of psychology that maintains that human beings are little more than biological machines, conditioned to merely “react” to external stimuli. The thinking individual, in its sentient self with his/her ideas, values, feelings, and intentions, is simply irrelevant.
A similar view also informed “dialectical materialism”, the crude form of Marxism that dominated intellectual thought in the Soviet Union and the Comintern. This held that political ideas could only be understood in the light of the economic or class interests of those that express them. In other words, “ideas” have a “material basis”, and beyond that, have no meaning or significance on its own.
The opposite argument is this — The famed economist John Maynard Keynes argued that the world is ruled by little other than the ideas of economic theorists and political philosophers. As he puts in the closing pages of his seminal work General Theory:
“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
Such a view suggests, for instance, that modern capitalism developed out of the classic economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and that Soviet communism was significantly shaped by the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, and that the history of Nazi Germany can only be understood by reference to the doctrine encapsulated in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The reality however, is this — Political ideas are not merely a passive reflection of power play or personal ambition, but have the capacity to inspire/guide political action, and in the process, shape material life. They do not emerge in a vacuum, and all political ideas are ultimately moulded by the social/historical circumstances in which they develop and by the political ambitions they serve.
Ideas and ideologies influence political life in a number of ways. First, they provide a perspective through which the world is understood and explained. People do not see the world as it is, but only as they expect it to be. In other words, people see the world through lenses of ingrained beliefs, opinions and assumptions.
To some degree, everyone subscribes to a set of political beliefs and values that guide their behaviour and influence their conduct — whether consciously or subconsciously. In that regard, political ideas and ideologies thus set goals that inspire political action.
It can be said that all politicians want power to a certain degree. This forces them to be pragmatic, to adopt policies or ideas that are electorally popular, to obtain a sense of political legitimacy. However, politicians seldom seek power for power’s sake. They also possess beliefs, values and convictions about what to do with power when it is achieved.
Political ideas also help to shape the nature of political systems. Systems of government vary considerably across the world, and are always associated with particular values or principles. For instance, absolute monarchies are based upon deeply enshrined religious ideas, while the political systems in most contemporary western countries are founded upon a set of liberal-democratic principles, with John Locke a particularly strong influence.
In the same way, traditional communist political systems conformed to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. Even the fact that the world is made up of independent nation-states and government power only exist at national level reflects the principles of self-determinism and the principles established under The Treaty of Westphalia.
Finally, political ideas and ideologies can act as a form of social cement, providing societies with a set of unifying beliefs and values. Political ideologies have commonly been associated with particular social classes. For instance, liberalism with the middle class, conservatism with the landed aristocracy, and socialism with the working class etc. These ideas reflect the life experiences and dreams of a social class, and can help foster a sense of belonging and solidarity. On the other end, there are “official” ideologies that have been found in fascist and communist regimes.
In conclusion, political ideas and ideologies are deeply ingrained in our lives, in our political systems, and how we live. It is an integral part of human society and should constantly be re-examined periodically to reflect the changing hopes and dreams of generations.