Commentary Magazine


The Role of Ideology

To the Editor:

I emphatically disagree with Henry David Aiken’s contention [“The Revolt Against Ideology,” April] that “free enterprise is everywhere a dead issue save in the mythology of fundamentalist Republicanism” and that “the welfare state is accepted by all as an irremovable reality.” . . . I do not believe there are so few individuals in America unconcerned about the progressing socialistic trend, possibly anticipated by Samuel Adams when he warned that “the Utopian schemes of leveling and a community of goods, are as visionary and impracticable as those which vest all property in the Crown, are arbitrary, despotic, and in our government, unconstitutional.”

Sharon Kelly
San Gabriel, California

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To the Editor:

. . . Marx argued that since knowledge is dependent on the means of production, only the outcast . . . can acquire true knowledge under systems of private property. It is not possible to rise from opinion to knowledge. The most radical opposition to such a view would seem to be found in the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, for contrary to Mr. Aiken, Plato does understand the pragmatic necessity of ideology (if not, what then is the “noble lie”?). Plato thought that the content of knowledge might be personally discovered within the form of opinion. . . . He did not, however, see all opinion as commensurate with truth.

Here an anti-nihilist understanding of the revolt against ideology emerges. Objections to a specific ideology, or false opinion, are not necessarily objections to opinion qua opinion. But during a period of drastic historical change, opinion may lose even the form of knowledge. . . . In such a case it may be that one must become anti-ideological, even to the point of martyrdom, to adhere to a concern about the most important things.

Our condition, to conclude, is much more critical than the ancients knew. For technology gives to opinion the power to create the universal and homogeneous state; the serious possibility of a perpetual tyranny would seem to call into question the ancient (and Judeo-Christian) counsels to suffer injustice. And if this ruling opinion happens to be false, or ideological, whereas the classical philosopher found himself a stranger in his own country, the modern one may truly find himself an outcast. Thus Marx would be right, but for the wrong reasons.

Carl Mitcham
San Francisco, California

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To the Editor:

. . . Mr. Aiken’s call for a refurbishing of American ideology could have very dangerous domestic results. Even if the leaders of American thought could, and would, keep up the pose of affirming faith where there is none, it is becoming more and more obvious that policies deduced logically from 18th-century notions of the nature of man, society, and government won’t work. Take, for example, the traditional American system of criminal law which presupposes a reasonable man, responsible for his acts, deliberately choosing to break rules and accepting as a fair retribution the punishment previously prescribed for his infraction. Does any reasonable man today (let alone a philosopher) believe that this theory is realistic and that implementing it will solve the problems of crime and delinquency? It is significant that the theoretical basis for current attacks on mental health programs and psychiatry in general is exactly the unrealistic 18th-century view of man embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. . . .

Mr. Aiken uses the drive for Negro equality as an example of an ideology and fears lest it be weakened by the pervasive anti-ideological bias of current philosophy. But he has the issue turned about—it is segregation that is based on elaborate ideological theories (innate inferiority, race purity, etc). Skepticism on these points, plus the pragmatic conviction that only a non-racist society is worthy of man, is quite adequate intellectual support for the dedicated anti-segregationist. Though there are ideologists among the opponents of white supremacy (religious groups, doctrinaire civil libertarians, and Black Muslims), the skeptic need not jettison his reason as he takes part. All of which disqualifies Mr. Aiken’s conclusion that only ideology can combat ideology.

Eleanor Greenwald
Jenkintown, Pennsylvania

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Mr. Aiken writes:

I am obliged to Miss Greenwald for providing an occasion for further clarification of some points made in my essay. I may add, I hope without offense, that her letter exhibits in one form precisely the mentality which I there called in question. I shall try once more to indicate why.

Let me begin by saying that I did not conceive it as my primary aim to “refurbish American ideology”; nor do I suppose that there is but one “American” ideology or that it is all of a piece. But I am indeed “doctrinaire,” if you like, in my advocacy of the ideological principles that animate our constitutional bill of rights. Nor am I prepared to compromise the demands, moral as well as political and legal, which they uncomfortably make upon us all. Time runs out, and anti-ideological tokenism, no less than anti-ideological gradualism, must finally be denounced for the cynical, immoral attitude it has become.

I assure Miss Greenwald that, if I ever did, I no longer inhabit the 18th century, much as I admire many things about it, including the ideological commitments so splendidly and unqualifiedly articulated in “our” Declaration of Independence. Like everyone else, I am for the full use of our 20th-century wits and our 20th-century knowledge in order to bring about a fuller realization of the major ideas and practices that form the main ideological legacy of the founding fathers in the Declaration and in the Constitution. I am also, it should go without saying, for the deepening and broadening of those ideals and for the modification of those practices in accordance with such relevant new experience, understanding, and sympathy as we in our time may have acquired. For example, I think we have reason to know, as our forebearers could not, that the dream of American autonomy, as a nation-state, must now be given up, just as the doctrine of states’ rights has been obliged to give way to the more exigent demands of the national welfare. It is appalling to think that the American government, whether with or without “the consent of the people,” still has the legal and political authority to decide when and if “we” should employ the hydrogen bomb. And so on, and so on. But this doesn’t in the least mean that I must give up my ideological civil libertarianism. That point of view is quite as “reasonable” as the equally ideological gospel of “democratic” compromise—I call it “stalling”—which the anti-ideologists avow.

Surely the drive for Negro equality is “an example of an ideology,” or at least a part or application thereof. Why should Miss Greenwald suppose that the doctrines of innate inferiority and race purity are ideological, yet their antitheses are not so? Could it be that she thinks that a good ideology is no ideology? But this is just the sort of intellectual and moral blindness that I was trying to expose and to correct in my essay. And why in the world is “the . . . conviction that only a non-racist society is worthy of man” ideological when affirmed by a non-pragmatist and non-ideological when affirmed by a pragmatist? How very odd. Anyway, as my own interstitial remarks in the essay should have made clear, my own ideological convictions are in large part pragmatically conceived and pragmatically interpreted. But this fact doesn’t make them any the less ideological; it only helps me to understand a bit better what their true “practical bearings” are, what their logical and semantical function is, and in what terms and on what grounds a defense of them can be made.

As for skepticism, Miss Greenwald is welcome to it. In the present context, it, like compromise, merely means inaction.

[An exchange on this subject between Mr. Aiken and Daniel Bell will appear in a future issue.]

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