First published by Headlong (2013)
Ideology shapes the way that we think and behave as members of society. An ideology is a set of conscious and unconscious ideas and beliefs that a group of people hold about the way that the world works. These ideas shape their sense of what is right and wrong. They shape their sense of what is normal and abnormal behaviour. They define their ambitions and their goals. At a deeper level, they shape their sense of reality.
We are not born with an innate sense of how the world works. Instead, we are taught how the world works as we grow up. The way that we are taught the world works is not neutral or natural but differs from culture to culture, from society to society.
We are taught to see the world in line with the prevailing ideology of the society of which we are part. We learn about the way that the world works in school, through representations of the world in art, in science and in literature. We learn about the world through the eyes of the religion that we practice, through the eyes of our parents and through the eyes of the media. We are told stories about the history of our society and other societies. All these perspectives on the world are coloured by the ideology that prevails in the society in which we live.
Ideology is ultimately about power and control. If you can control the way that people think the world works, then you can control the way that they behave and they think. Being in control of the way that people behave and think puts you in a position of great power.
In Stalinist Russia, children were taught a version of history that glorified the society in which they lived. In their history books, the story of the Russian revolution made Stalin a much more prominent and heroic figure in those events than he actually was. Events that reflected badly on Stalin and his regime were not included in the version of history in school textbooks. There was no mention of the great famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, in which millions of people starved to death as a result of Stalin’s government’s economic and agricultural policies. People who can criticised the regime were deleted from history. Trotsky, who had played a major role in the Russian revolution alongside Lenin, was removed from the history of those events. Most famously, a picture in which Trotsky is stood by Lenin was altered so that Trotsky disappeared from the picture completely.
Artists in Stalinist Russia created art and literature that praised Stalin and his government. Spectacular parades were staged that demonstrated the strength and mite of Stalin’s communist Russia. The newspapers only ran stories that either congratulated the government on their successes or criticised those who criticised the regime. Censorship meant that any works of art or newspaper articles that contradicted the ideology of Stalin and his government were banned. People did not have any access to any alternative versions of how the world might work. They were only allowed to see the world the way that Stalin and his government wanted them to see it.
Stalin’s communist government tried to eradicate any institutions that challenged their version of how the world worked. They attempted to shut down the churches in Russia, because they offered the people a different way of thinking about the how world works. The church was a threat to Stalin and his government because it offered a competing ideology.
Ideology is easy to see from the outside. When we look at Stalinist Russia, we can see that Stalin created a version of how the world worked that supported his position of power as head of the Communist government. We would say that Stalin lied to the people of Russia, both about their history and about current events. In 1984, it is clear to us as readers that the government of Airstrip One is manipulating history in order to make its citizens view the world in a particular way.
It is, however, very difficult to identify an ideology when you are living under it. It simply the way that you think the world works. In 1984, Julia finds it difficult to see how the government is manipulating her view of the world. Winston tells Julia about having to remove any scrap of evidence that Oceania was at war with Eastasia instead of Eurasia, after the government decides to switch the identity of the enemy that they are fighting against. Julia states that she thought that they had always been at war with Eurasia. She is so caught up in the ideology of her society that she doesn’t question the new narrative about the war, even though she should remember from her own experience that things were once different.
In the West, we like to think that we don’t live in an ideological society, that all our choices are our own. But if an effective ideology is something you can’t see, how would you know if your thoughts and behaviour were being shaped by an ideology rather than being wholly your own?
The best place to start is to ask yourself how you think the world works. What seems to you to be ‘common sense’ or ‘natural’ or ‘something everyone knows’? Is it ‘common sense’ to always look out for number one? Are women ‘naturally’ more emotional than men? Is the fact that a happy life consists of earning lots of money ‘something that everyone knows’? Would the answers to any of these questions be different, if you had grown up in a different culture or at a different point in history? By starting to question the things that you take for granted about the way the world works, you might be able to start to see the way that ideology colours your own views and beliefs.
This article was originally published by Headlong (2013).