MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




In the system of Hegel’s Logic, the “Idea” is third and final stage of development of the Notion, the unity of the Subject and the Object, developing up to the Absolute Idea, which is the unity of the Being and the Notion.

Thus the Idea represents the mature stage of development of a principle or movement; in the beginning (i.e. in the Subjective Notion) a principle is abstract and separate and opposed to other principles (or sciences or movements, etc.); a notion gains ‘objectivity’ when it is able to merge with and transform all the other principles (or sciences or movements, etc.) in the world around it; the third, mature stage of development of a Notion, the Idea, represents a science which has totally interpenetrated other disciplines and develops as part of the whole cultural development of the community.

Thus, in forming the unity of subject and object, the Idea, according to Hegel, develops towards the unity of the notion (or theory) and being (or day-to-day immediacy), because it has concretised itself in the subject-object dialectic. This process is a kind of totalisation, holding to an ideal of culture and science in which everything becomes subsumed as moments or determinations of one single idea. This unitary conception of knowledge is one of Hegel's greatest strengths, but is also the object of frequent criticism since it excludes absolute and irreconcilable difference.

Nevertheless, the Idea captures the concept of the development of theory through the unity and conflict of theory (subjectivity) and practice (objectivity), with theory being improved in the light of practical experience and practice being made more conscious in the light of theory. The stages of the Idea are Life, Cognition and the Absolute Idea.

Further Reading: Hegel’s Outline of Logic and The Idea: Life & Cognition.



"The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being.... The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature... comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism."

Fredrick Engels
The End of Classical German Philosophy
Chpt. 2: Materialism

Idealism is a thought process (ex. rationalism) of how the material world adheres to ideas. Idealists follow a certain ideal concept (ex. faith) and understand everything from its adherence to that concept.

Idealism is in contrast to materialism, a thought process (ex. dialectical materialism) of how the material world creates ideas. Such ideas thus created are not concrete and fixed, but are constantly changing and being remoulded by the differences and changes in the material world.

Idealism can also be understood as the practice of understanding abstractions through other abstractions; where an abstraction is something that does not necessarily have basis nor relation to reality, but only exists in relation to other abstractions. The primary concern for the idealist is to create concepts that adequately explain (and change of viewpoint of) the world as we know it.

Idealism may reject the existence of the external world all altogether (the world beyond thought, beyond sensation) or assert that while a world beyond sensation may exist, it is unknowable. These trends are known as Subjective Idealism. On the other hand, idealism may accept the objectivity of nature but regard the material as the expression of ideal forces such as the Will of God, the absolute Idea, etc whose nature is accessible to the Mind directly. These trends are known as Objective Idealism.

For an example of idealism, what follows are the beliefs of three prominent idealist philosophers in regards to what is truth. While truth is an abstract, or ideal from reality; idealists understand such abstractions through equating them to other abstractions:

Descartes: "true are those things that are certain."
Husserl: "truth is doubt"
Hegel: "the element in which truth is found is the notion"

The materialist, on the other hand, understands abstractions by equating them to reality.

Marx: truth is known through practice

We have already had more than one occasion to make ourselves acquainted with [a particular idealist] method. It consists in dissecting each group of objects of knowledge to what is claimed to be their simplest elements, applying to these elements similarly simple and what are claimed to be self-evident axioms, and then continuing to operate with the aid of the results so obtained. Even a problem in the sphere of social life

"is to be decided axiomatically, in accordance with particular, simple basic forms, just as if we were dealing with the simple ... basic forms of mathematics" {D. Ph. 224}.

And thus the application of the mathematical method to history, morals and law is to give us also in these fields mathematical certainty of the truth of the results obtained, to characterise them as genuine, immutable truths. This is only giving a new twist to the old favourite ideological method, also known as the a priori method, which consists in ascertaining the properties of an object, by logical deduction from the concept of the object, instead of from the object itself. First the concept of the object is fabricated from the object; then the spit is turned round, and the object is measured by its reflexion, the concept. The object is then to conform to the concept, not the concept to the object. With Herr Dühring the simplest elements, the ultimate abstractions he can reach, do service for the concept, which does not alter matters; these simplest elements are at best of a purely conceptual nature. The philosophy of reality, therefore, proves here again to be pure ideology, the deduction of reality not from itself but from a concept.

And when such an ideologist constructs morality and law from the concept, or the so-called simplest elements of "society", instead of from the real social relations of the people round him, what material is then available for this construction? Material clearly of two kinds: first, the meagre residue of real content which may possibly survive in the abstractions from which he starts and, secondly, the content which our ideologist once more introduces from his own consciousness. And what does he find in his consciousness? For the most part, moral and juridical notions which are a more or less accurate expression (positive or negative, corroborative or antagonistic) of the social and political relations amidst which he lives; perhaps also ideas drawn from the literature on the subject; and, as a final possibility, some personal idiosyncrasies. Our ideologist may turn and twist as he likes, but the historical reality which he cast out at the door comes in again at the window, and while he thinks he is framing a doctrine of morals and law for all times and for all worlds, he is in fact only fashioning an image of the conservative or revolutionary tendencies of his day - an image which is distorted because it has been torn from its real basis and, like a reflection in a concave mirror, is standing on its head.

Frederick Engels
Equality, Anti-Dühring


Idealist conception of History

Understands history according to a certain idea or category, viewing any period of history through the same set of ideals. {...}

Further Reading: Marx's definition of this in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and in German Ideology; and also in Hegel on the Objective Idealism of Hegel.


Identity, the Law of

The Law of Identity is expressed as “A=A”, which in symbolic logic is nothing more than one of the axioms defining the behaviour of the "=" sign. When applied generally in Formal Logic, however, this says that all concepts and things are “self-equal”. In this form it is the basis of the “metaphysical” approach to understanding the world as separate, unchanging things. This contrasts with the dialectical approach in which the world is conceived as interconnected, self-contradictory, mutable things and processes.

The Identity of A can only have meaning through defining what is different from A, “not-A”. We find that in fact everything is “not-A” including the same 'A' a second later (so long as the premise that all things are in motion is true), and thus arises the “Maxim of Diversity”.

Further Reading: Hegel in the Shorter Logic, in the Science of Logic, Hegel's criticism of the natural science of his time as the Philosophy of Identity and on A=A; see Lenin's comments on Hegel's concept of the Law of Identity, Trotsky's explanation of dialectics based on a critique of "A=A" and C L R James on Identity, Difference and Contradiction.

Further Reading: also Identity, Difference, Opposition and Contradiction, Ground and Identity.


Identity Politics

Identity politics is the political terrain in which various social groups engage in a “struggle for recognition” within bourgeois society, each seeking recognition for the special interests of a specific social group. Identity politics dominated radical politics during the last few decades of the 20th century, and constituted a turn away from attempts to change governments or win political power. Identity politics focused on how their particular group were “represented” in media and language, how their group were affected by various institutional practices and so on.

Historical Development: Identity politics had its origins in the development of the labour process in the U.S. in particular and the developed capitalist countries generally, which made the super-exploitation of sections of the working class untenable, and increased the potential for the socialisation of women’s labour and other relations which was incompatible with traditional forms of oppression. The growth of professional sections of the working class and “knowledge industries”, on top of the successes of a series of social movements, created both the opportunity and means for the promotion of sectional interests in lieu of class interests.

Identity politics arose out of and as a negation of the mass social movements and struggles following the Second World War – for example the National Liberation Movements, followed by the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S..

The National Liberation Movement was a mass movement which took the form of struggles against imperialism and frequently merged with the workers movement internationally and was closely connected with Socialism.

The National Liberation Movement was a major impetus for the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the U.S., which borrowed much of its rhetoric and inspiration from the National Liberation struggles of Black people in Africa and elsewhere.

In its turn, the Women’s Liberation Movement, which began in the US and other developed capitalist countries, took its inspiration from these struggles. Although the Women’s Liberation Movement included large-scale struggles against institutions which supported patriarchy and for change to laws such as equal pay legislation, this movement introduced for the first time elements of “personal politics”, i.e., political struggle on the plane of interpersonal relations.

Thus, the social movements of the post-war period which emphasised the common interests of masses of people in opposition to an external enemy, began to pass over to politics which emphasised difference, and by the compounding of multiple difference, identity, and the enemy became more and more indefinable: although everyone seemed to belong to one oppressed minority or another (you might be an educated white American, but if you were gay, female or disabled for example, then you could engage in a struggle against the special oppression you were suffering in that respect). All such struggles against the multiplicity of oppressions were and remain of course progressive, but the overall effect is also de-mobilising.

Having its origin in the individualism inherent in bourgeois social relations, Identity Politics began to develop within these movements, transforming collective struggles against state and institutional forms of oppression into struggles of recognition for Blacks, Women, Gays, young people, and so on. From the standpoint of Identity Politics, Socialism is just another strand of Identity Politics, namely the struggle of the working class, but for Identity Politics, identity is self-identity, so Socialism is reduced to the struggle for recognition of those who define themselves as workers, and commonly as straight, white, male, blue collar workers. From this standpoint Socialism appears simply as the assertion of the privileging of one group over others.

The struggle for recognition of People With AIDS was possibly the last struggle of Identity Politics to reach a level approaching a mass movement. The principle philosophical spokesperson for this movement was Michel Foucault, and a principal outcome of Foucault’s analysis is that oppression operates through a network of interpersonal relations, in which the identity of people is socially constructed, rather than great institutions, such as the state, being seen as the source of oppression.

The inherent logic within Identity Politics leads to smaller and smaller sections of society being thrown into struggle with less and less opportunity for legitimate call upon the solidarity of others. Consequently, the need for finding some basis of commonality in interest and struggle began to assert itself in the nineties. Further, the ugly consequences of Identity Politics began to exhibit themselves in the disintegratory nationalist struggles in Yugoslavia and in the former colonies, and together with religious fundamentalism all combined to bring Identity Politics to a blind alley by the end of the century.

Nevertheless, the period of Identity Politics completes the bourgeois revolution, in exposing all those forms of oppression that are not essential to the rule of capital; in particular, Identity Politics shows, in case after case, how social consciousness and the various forms of oppression found in bourgeois society are “social constructs” rather than immutable relations given in human nature, and how new forms of social consciousness and new social relations, which overcome the oppressive relations, can be forged in struggle.

The “Anti-Capitalist Movement” of the beginning of this millennium marks the opening of a new political terrain, alliance politics, in which various groups and movements seek alliances to resolve social problems, but unlike the movements which had preceded the period of Identity Politics, identify segments of civil society as the site of struggle rather than engaging in a struggle for state power.

Further Reading: Without any implication that the following writers are advocates of Identity Politics (most are not), for elements of the process, see Franz Fanon’s National Culture and the Fight for Freedom on national identity, Kate Millett on Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone on gender and class in The Dialectic of Sex.



Ideology is a system of concepts and views which serves to make sense of the world while obscuring the social interests that are expressed therein, and by its completeness and relative internal consistency tends to form a closed system and maintain itself in the face of contradictory or inconsistent experience.

The word is used with a wide variety of connotations, even among Marxists; Terry Eagleton, in his Ideologies, lists a range of meanings:

Marxists seek to subject all ideology to critique, uncovering the internal contradictions in an ideology and exposing the social interests expressed by it.

Marxism itself is frequently described as ideology, in the sense in which a negative connotation is attached to the word; that is, that Marxism is a closed system of ideas which maintains itself in the face of contrary experience. Any social view must contain an element of ideology, since an entirely objective and supra-historical view of the world is unattainable. Further, by its very scope and strength, Marxism lends itself to transformation into a closed and self-justifying system of assertions.

However, such a development of Marxism is contrary to its spirit which is relentlessly critical and self-critical and draws sustenance from the unceasing creation of new material for reflection in the progress of culture and social life.