Is there such a thing as totalitarian ideology? In an earlier era the end-of-ideology thesis answered that there was, albeit in order to do so the authors of the thesis articulated a notoriously weak theory of ideology itself – one long since discredited. Ever since the thesis’ heyday in the 1950s there has been confidence about theorising, in separation, both fascist ideology and communist ideology. However, there has been considerably less confidence about describing an ideology of totalitarianism per se which might, amongst other things, straddle the two. The argument of this article is that such discomfort should cease. Totalitarianism has distinctive ideological identity in its own right, and the term itself refers (or should refer) to more than simply the regime-stage assumed by extremist political movements. But in order to make this argument stick, the challenge is in part methodological: it is to find the conception of ideology most up to the job. Many of the standard conceptions prove unavailable. In their place, totalitarian ideology should be (re)thought on the notion of the ‘recalcitrant text’, insofar as incoherence is the main problem involved. This holds general lessons for methodology in ideology studies, and for the problem of identification in particular. In a word, we are far too choosy about the objects we are prepared to devote meaningful time to study, and in the process we sell short our potential to apprehend a multi-layered ideological field.