Commentary Magazine

The Revolt Against Ideology

Can it any longer be doubted that, on all sides of the Iron Curtain, the age of Leviathan is upon us? And for serious men does there remain any significant form of activity that is politically indifferent? We still profess loyalty to the ideal of “free inquiry,” but the fact is that, directly or indirectly, governments supply the major resources, and politics most of the incentives, for our scientific research. And if some fortunate scientists of eminence are still encouraged to do “pure” or “basic” research, according to their interest, the primary reason is not that such studies exemplify one of man’s essential intrinsic goods, but that the state cannot survive without them. Indeed, our universities and governments, along with our great industrial complexes, look increasingly like the interlocking arms of a great, if also headless, political establishment. Free enterprise (who doubts it?) is everywhere a dead issue save in the mythology of fundamentalist Republicanism, and whether our political leaders favor state capitalism or corporate socialism, the welfare state is accepted by all as an irremovable reality. Politics provide the primary themes of our literature, and when the critics charge a novelist or poet with “retreating from life,” what they mean by “life” does not need to be construed. “Aesthetics” signifies merely enfeeblement and irrelevance; the “pure” artist, like the pure scientist, is a dying species, and none will mourn him save perhaps a few old “new critics” who, be it added, well understood the political meaning of their own dandified aestheticism. Our most exigent moral perplexities are overwhelmingly political, and our gods, such as they are, seem wholly preoccupied with affairs of state.

I must admit, however, that there still exists one quiet place where a man may go if he is nauseated by problems of politics and hence of power, and one course of study which he may still pursue without fear of political encroachment: he may go, that is, to the graduate school of any great university and take up the subject known there as “philosophy.” Among the intellectuals, to my knowledge, we philosophers alone are politically inert. The meaning of the concept of political obligation fascinates some few of my colleagues, but I have rarely heard them, in congress assembled, discuss their political obligations. And if any were asked to offer their opinions concerning the ends, or limits, of government they would probably either decline to answer or regard the question as philosophically improper.

In order to prove the rule, there remain a few notorious exceptions such as Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Professor Sidney Hook. But we have Russell’s own word for it that his politics, like his ethics, and his philosophy have nothing in common except that both were hatched under the same head of hair, and both Sartre and Hook are frequently dismissed by their more academic colleagues as publicists who have deserted philosophy for careers as ideologists and politicians. Recalling the greatest names in the history of philosophy from Socrates to Aquinas and from Hobbes to Mill, one may wonder momentarily how such a state of affairs could have come to pass. But when one remembers what men have done, and in many parts of the world are still prepared to do, in the name of a political philosophy, the answer seems evident: from a “pragmatic” point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and wherever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state. Russell himself once wrote an essay entitled, “The Harm that Good Men Do.” Many would regard this as an appropriate subtitle for any honest and realistic history of political philosophy. With Socrates, political philosophy became a gadfly; in Plato, a monstrous dream; in Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and the rest, it has become a scourge and an obscenity.

Such is the prevailing view. And if Peter Laslett, the editor of a recent volume of essays on political philosophy, is correct in saying that “for the moment, anyway, political philosophy is dead,” then none mourn its passing less than the philosophers themselves. Those few who, as philosophers, still suppose that they have a useful political role to play, discover it to be only that of unmasking the pretensions of other political philosophers.

Just what is wrong with political philosophy as a genre nonetheless remains obscure. Of course many political philosophies from Plato to Aquinas, and from Hobbes and Rousseau to Hegel and Marx, have been tied to the kites of theological or metaphysical systems. And for some, no doubt, this fact suffices to put them beyond the pale. But roundhouse objections to “metaphysics” are less fashionable than they were some years ago. In fact, under pressure from the philosophers of ordinary language, philosophical analysts are increasingly reluctant to proscribe as meaningless any established form of discourse on principle, as the positivists used to do with the propositions, not only of metaphysics and theology, but also of ethics. In this respect, recent analytical philosophy has steadily moved in the direction of pragmatism or, I had better say, the direction in which pragmatism has tended to move since the days of William James. Any form of utterance, so it is now argued, is to be interpreted and judged only in the light of its own characteristic “practical bearings.” Thus, for example, if political philosophers in their own terms are given to general moral evaluations of political activities and institutions, the question is only whether such appraisals, all things considered, are acceptable as value judgments: that is to say, do they express commitments to which, on sober second thought and in view of the historical record, we should be ready to give our own conscientious assent? Do the lines of social action which they commend appear on the whole to be worth the trouble it would take to realize them? Above all, would we in conscience be able to give our blessings to the sort of “representative man” who might emerge if such lines of action were resolutely pursued?

Questions of this sort, which I take more seriously, have produced another round of objections which, although they do not rule out political philosophy on supposedly semantical or logical grounds, do nonetheless seem to condemn it virtually as a genre. These objections are all the more telling and all the more significant since they come from a quarter in which there has been no general animus against metaphysics and no self-denying ordinance which would exclude from the purview of philosophy any problem that is not purely a conceptual problem about the “logic” of expressions.



To my knowledge the most powerful attack upon political philosophy from this quarter (which for convenience may be called “existentialist”) is to be found in Albert Camus’s arresting work, The Rebel. Camus’s indictment is easily misunderstood. To be sure, it is profoundly anti-rationalistic, but it is by no means based upon a romantic or nihilistic disillusionment with human reason or with the value of its exercise. Quite the contrary, reasonableness, in the more classical sense of the term, is Camus’s forte. What he condemns, rather, are the crimes incited by the political philosophers in the name of Reason or of Reason’s God. All men, say the philosophers, are created equal; ergo, let them be restored at once to their pristine estate, whatever the cost. All men are by nature free, yet everywhere they are in chains; ergo, Reason demands that they immediately be released, though ten thousand jailers perish in the process. Man is, above all, the rational animal, but because of the blinders which the ancient regime places before his mind, he cannot freely exercise his reason; then destroy the regime, let reason, or its self-appointed representatives, reign, and the devil take those who stand in the way. No doubt the political philosophers never meant to be quite so simple or so brutal as these caricatures suggest. But what of their followers, those who take them, or try to take them, at their word? Can the political philosophers altogether disclaim responsibility for their crimes? Is there not an ingrained metaphysical or moral pride, a fatal lack of continence in the very attempt of political philosophers to set forth, whether in the name of reason or of nature or of humanity, the absolute ends of government and the supposedly invariant forms of the just society?

But Camus’s criticisms are by no means directed exclusively to the 18th-century philosophes and their descendants. They are extended also to the Hegelians and the Marxists who attempt to formulate a universal law, or dialectic, of historical development which is then made to double in brass as an immanent principle of justification for their own incitive prophecies about man’s social destiny. Whether such prophecies proclaim a future of unlimited freedom, of absolute justice and equality, or of perpetual peace, in each case they too represent that criminal pride of reason which destroys the sense of limitation which for Camus is the beginning of political, as of every other form of, wisdom.

From these remarks it would be easy enough to conclude that Camus’s indictment of traditional political philosophy is actually an indictment of philosophy itself. And so in a way it is, at least as philosophy has been conceived and executed in the dominant Western tradition. Yet Camus is not just another literary counter-philosopher. Nor is his indictment of rationalistic political philosophy a condemnation of political philosophy per se. For it is plain that, as Sir Herbert Read points out in his discerning preface to the English translation of The Rebel, Camus himself has a philosophy of politics. But it is, at any rate, a philosophy of politics radically different from those of his predecessors. For Camus makes no attempt to define the function or the end of government or to state the rightful basis of political authority. Nor does he propose any universal principle of political action save one of self-limitation or restraint. It is also characteristic of Camus that although he repudiates any and all forms of unlimited revolution, he accepts the necessity, on occasion, of rebellion or civil disobedience.



Despite many differences both in philosophical background and in literary style, there are striking parallels between Camus’s existentialist critique of modern political philosophy and those to be found in the writings of the pragmatist, John Dewey. In Dewey one finds the same hatred of essentialism and apriorism, the same antipathy to utopianism, and the same distrust both of radical individualism and of radical collectivism. There is a similar emphasis upon the concrete “problematic situations” (as Dewey calls them) which alone he takes it to be the business of “creative intelligence” to resolve. And there is the same underlying humanism which opposes the sacrifice of living men to principles and to ideals realizable, if at all, only in an abstract and indefinite future. For obvious reasons, Dewey was more confident than Camus of the efficacy of democratic procedures, at least in “developed” societies. Yet he was by no means prepared to demand the immediate institution of such procedures in all countries and circumstances; nor did he, like more romantic majoritarians, regard the will of the many as an absolute source of rightful, political authority. Democracy for Dewey is a method rather than an end. Or if, in certain writings, democracy also tends to become an end, then it is in a looser sense of the term which now begins to take on meanings more strictly associated with the concepts of community, fraternity, and social equality.

Dewey’s pragmatic criticisms of earlier political philosophy are usually regarded as methodological rather than moral—although in his case, as in that of all pragmatists, it is always a question where problems of method leave off and problems of ethics (and politics) begin. Thus, whereas Camus ascribes the primordial fault of the political philosophers to their incontinent passion for absolute transcendence of the finite conditions of man’s historical social existence, Dewey ascribes it to the illusory “quest for certainty” which, according to his reading, dominated virtually the whole history of philosophy before the 20th century. Yet in Dewey’s case also, one senses that he more radical evil lies not in the illusion itself but in its attendant waste and destructiveness. The quest for certainty begins in hope and ends in skepticism and despair. In promising us an unlimited intellectual and moral security, it brings is by stages to the war of all against all. Dewey’s more unfriendly critics have often charged him with advocacy of the gospel of human perfectibility. No criticism could be more perverse. Man, as Dewey conceives him, is, once for all, a mortal creature who lives and has his being within the orders of nature and of history. Indeed, this is the governing metaphysical principle underlying his logic, his theory of knowledge, and his moral philosophy. Uncertainty, and hence imperfection, are ingrained in the very texture of human existence. And no method, including the methods of science, can extricate us from them.

In other spheres, philosophical forgetfulness of this fact has been unfortunate; in politics, as in ethics, it has proved a calamity. This is not to deny that Dewey has a philosophy of politics, but like Camus’s it is of a sort quite different from the major political philosophies of the tradition. He is sometimes criticized for offering us no explicit general theory of governmental authority, no principled statement of the grounds or proper limits of political obligation—above all, no settled position toward the most vexatious of modern political problems, namely, revolution. But Dewey’s vagueness on these scores is quite intentional. In politics as in ethics, Dewey repudiates any and all fixed principles for the institution of the good society or for the establishment and maintenance of good government. His preoccupation as a political philosopher is solely with the controlling attitudes which men bring to their political deliberations.



II. Marxism and Ideology: The First Revolt

Impressive as they are, the foregoing criticisms of political philosophy are largely matters of individual judgment. And if the professional philosophers now decline to do political philosophy, it may be argued that this is owing to their own disillusionment with the achievements of their predecessors rather than to any inherent fault in political philosophy as a genre. It remains to ask whether there may be, after all, some deep-lying confusion of mind, some pervasive logical fault or category mistake, which really does afflict political philosophy as a form of discourse.

As a way of confronting this question, it may prove useful to examine certain aspects of the widespread attack against the modern offspring of and successor to political philosophy, namely, ideology. Most of the “anti-ideologists,” as I shall call them, share certain attitudes in common with the existentialists; indeed, it is my impression that some of them owe more to the latter, and particularly to Camus, than they have as yet acknowledged. They owe something also to the pragmatists; in fact, most American anti-ideologists fancy their own point of view as essentially “pragmatic.” But (generally speaking) they go beyond the existentialists and the pragmatists in contending that ideological thinking is the function of certain features of the social situation in which intellectuals as a group find themselves in an era of exact science, advanced technology, and the welfare state. In predicting the end of ideology, they thus imply that the social and intellectual conditions which have been conducive to ideological thinking are now disappearing. Their own role, in effect, is to make certain that the prediction will come true.

Now the primary target of our contemporary Western anti-ideologists is, of course, Marxism. And in prophesying the end of ideology, it is the end of Marxism of which they mainly dream. It is worth remembering, therefore, that: (a) Marx was the first great critic of political philosophy; and (b) he was also the first great prophet of the end of the ideological age.

According to Marx, ideology always involves a conception of reality which systematically “inverts” the whole relation of thought to being.1 As a form of thought, therefore, ideology is inherently confused; it stands to science, in Marx’s words, as an inverted image in a “camera obscura” stands to a veridical perception. This inversion, of which Hegel’s “objective” idealism is a prime philosophical example, results directly or indirectly from that process of “alienation” whereby human artifacts, including “ideas,” are invested with a power and a reality that are supposedly independent both of their producers and of the material conditions and operations involved in their production. Such an investment, which philosophers call “reification,” is also necessarily accompanied by “mystification,” i.e., by an obscuring of the interests and relationships that actually determine social behavior. For example, in imputing an independent reality and power to their reified ideas and principles, their rights and duties, their ends and “reasons,” men thereby conceal from themselves the fact that it is they, the creators of such entities, whose underlying actions and whose work alone give them whatever significance they may have.

Except for genuinely empirical science, the whole cultural “superstructure” of hitherto existing societies is permeated by the same process of alienation and ideological inversion. For this reason it would be a radical mistake to conceive of ideology as limited to political philosophy; on the contrary, ideology also includes, among other things, religion, ethics, art, metaphysics, and the “dismal science” of economics. Properly understood, political philosophies are merely special applications of far-flung ideological patterns that invest them with their own magical “authority” and “justification.” Furthermore, since alienation is a social process, ideologies, whether as wholes or as parts, are to be understood as expressions, not of the interests of isolated individuals, but of the conflicting concerns—or better, tendencies—of social classes. It is thus only by relating political ideologies to their objective social conditions and causes that we can begin to interpret their true objective meaning (i.e., what they signify or portend within the order of nature), and hence, by stages, to correct the inverted images of reality which they present to the ideologists themselves. One of the primary functions of Marxism, in fact, is precisely to provide the intellectual, including the social-theoretical, tools for such interpretations and corrections, and thus for the first time to enable us, in principle, to demythologize ideology.

But it is one thing to explain ideology and another to overcome it. Mankind as a whole can permanently overcome ideological thought (and action) not by any process of purely conceptual analysis on the part of individual philosophers, but only by removing the material causes of alienation which, according to Marx, are rooted in the institution of private property. And it is for this reason, and this reason alone, that Marx’s historical prophecy of the coming of world socialism amounts at the same time to a prophecy of the end of the ideological ages.



III. Disillusionment in the West: The Second Revolt against Ideology

Marx’s view of ideology underlies the thinking of most of our own anti-ideologists. However, they go beyond Marx in extending the pejorative associations of the term to the role of ideology in ordering human attitudes. Thus, they not only regard ideological doctrines as wrong-headed; they also object to their employment as vehicles for the formation, guidance, and control of social behavior. But they go Marx one better in another way, for they also regard Marxism itself as a prime example of ideology.

The first non-Marxist writer, so far as I know, explicitly to inquire whether we might be approaching the end of the ideological age was Raymond Aron in his book, The Opium of the Intellectuals. The prevailing temper of Aron’s book is not unlike that of Camus’s The Rebel. There are also a number of striking parallels between Aron’s point of view and that of Karl Popper, as developed in the latter’s The Open Society and its Enemies. For example, there is the same constitutional distrust of large-scale social planning, the same insistence upon the impossibility of large-scale historical predictions of social behavior, and the same celebration of the virtues of “the open society.” Above all, there is the same castigation of any attempt to determine the drift and meaning of human history as a whole and hence of the attempt to formulate universal and necessary laws of historical development.

“The last great ideology,” says Aron, “was born of the combination of three elements: the vision of a future consistent with human aspiration, the link between this future and a particular social class, and trust in human values above and beyond the victory of the working class, thanks to planning and collective ownership.” Aron believes that at the present time the hope aroused by that ideology is gone beyond peradventure. One main reason for this disillusionment, so he argues, is that “Confidence in the virtues of a socio-technique has begun to wane.” Furthermore, on this side of the Iron Curtain, no one believes any longer in the reality of a social class that will carry us, under the leadership of the socio-economic engineers, to the frontiers of the classless society. Like Camus and Popper, Aron cannot bring himself flatly to renounce the values of the Enlightenment; but in practice he is no more able than they to take them with absolute seriousness as governing ideals for the reconstruction of society in the 20th century. In his own terms, he no longer fully believes in the vision of a future consistent with “human aspirations.” And it is this fact perhaps that accounts for the vein of pessimism and the self-division which run through his writing.



In any case, it is plain that for Aron the approaching end of the age of ideology represents also a crisis of faith and of hope for mankind. On the penultimate page of his book, Aron asks, “Does the rejection of fanaticism encourage a reasonable faith, or merely skepticism?” His analogical answer is that “one does not cease to love God when one gives up converting pagans or the Jews and no longer reiterates ‘No salvation outside the Church.’” Coming as late as it does in Aron’s book, this has something like the effect of an unprepared major cadence at the end of a funeral march. What is its basis? No matter how personal one’s religion may be, it is hard to see how it could fail to be attenuated by a radical renunciation of one’s belief that it should prevail. If one really gives up trying to convert the “pagans,” does this not entail reservations about the value as well as the possibility of converting them? If so, does this not also suggest that one has ceased completely to love God or else that only a gesture toward the love of Him remains? Making due allowance for the analogy, I cannot, as a pragmatist, see how one can be said actively to seek a less cruel lot for humanity if one can trust no technique and no plan for its amelioration. To will the end is to will the means, and to reject the means is, in practice, to renounce the end. Like Peirce in another connection, one is minded to say to the political as well as to the epistemological moralists: “Dismiss make-believe!” This means also, so far as I can see, “Dismiss professions of ‘reasonable faith’ if you do not believe in the power of reason; and do not talk about abolishing ‘fanaticism,’ unless you believe that there is a way (or ‘technique’) of abolishing it.” Like all anti-ideologists, Aron is opposed to the expectation of “miraculous changes” either from a revolution or an economic plan. Very well. The question is whether he gives us any reason to expect unmiraculous changes from any sort of concerted human action. “If tolerance is born of doubt, let us teach everyone to doubt all the models and Utopias, to challenge all the prophets of redemption and the heralds of catastrophe.” And, “If they alone can abolish fanaticism, let us pray for the advent of the skeptics.” The rhetoric is appealing. But it smacks of ideology, in Aron’s own sense. For toleration is also a principle and a method. And it too has its dangers.

These comments are not made in a spirit of mockery. My purpose is rather to make clear what may be implied in the prophecy that we are living at the end of the ideological age, the age, in Mr. Aron’s own apt words, in which men still actively search “for a purpose, for communion with the people, for something controlled by an idea and a will” (my italics). As he points out, we Westerners have suffered an increasing fragmentation of our universe; our poetry becomes more and more obscure and diffuse, and our poets are isolated from one another as well, as from “the big public” which “in their heart of hearts, they long to serve”; our scientists have ideas aplenty but no control over their use or indeed any consistent belief in the possibility of their control; our scholars control limited areas of specialized knowledge, but present-day science “seems to leave . . . [them] as ignorant of the answers to the ultimate questions as a child awakening to consciousness”; and our economists and sociologists, for all their facts and statistics, their jargon and their lore, have not the vaguest notion whether “humanity is progressing toward an atomic holocaust or Utopian peace.” This process of fragmentation and dissociation, moreover, is not new; it has been going on at an ever more rapid pace, at least since the Renaissance. But here precisely, as Aron admits, “is where ideology comes in. . . .” For ideology represents the insistent demand for a coherent way of individual and social life, an orientation toward the world and toward the human predicament, controlled as he says both by an idea and by a will, or, rather, by a will infused with an idea and an idea animated by will. Ideology, as Aron tacitly acknowledges, is a creature of alienation; but it represents also a passion to reduce alienation, to bring it down to bearable human proportions. It also represents the belief that alienation may be reduced through collective human endeavors. Thus, by his own account, an end to the age of ideology would amount to this extent to a virtual skepticism about the possibility of reducing alienation through corporate planning and action (ideas infused with will). And this means that man has no choice but to live with alienation. Here, however, one faces precisely one of those metaphysical and historical “necessities” against which the anti-ideologists themselves rail when they find them in the writings of other ideologists. Here, too, it seems, we are faced with a “simplified” idea of man’s fate which, as in the case of the Stoicism it is plainly a variant of, forms the basis of still another ideology, an idea that in this instance is, if I may say so, fused with inaction.



IV. The Sociological Critique of Ideology

Aron’s analysis of ideology, although suggestive, does not take us very far. Let us therefore cross the ocean to the heartland of contemporary anti-ideology. In the United States perhaps the leading anti-ideologist is the sociologist and social critic, Professor Daniel Bell. Bell, who knows his Marx, is also a good strategist. Already in the introduction to his book, The End of Ideology, he moves beyond Aron, for, unlike the latter, he proposes to make a positive virtue of alienation. “Alienation,” he tells us flatly, “is not nihilism but a positive role, a detachment, which guards one against being submerged in any cause, or accepting any particular embodiment of community as final. Nor is alienation deracination, a denial of one’s roots or country.” This persuasive definition has its points. It is also an interesting instance of the notion of an idea fused with will which Bell, like Aron, tends to identify with ideology.

As befits a sociologist, Bell is concerned not just with the content of ideas but with their social origins, causes, and roles. Thus, in an attempt to locate the sources of ideological thinking, he begins his analysis with a characterological division of the intelligentsia into two main types: (a) the “scholars”; and (b) the “intellectuals.” The scholar, as Bell conceives him, “has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it, adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past as to a mosaic.” He is, so to say, a “pro” for whom “the show must go on,” however and whatever he himself may feel about it. Accepting the scholarly tradition within which he has found a place, he is able to judge himself, or at least his scholarly performance, by impersonal and objective standards. And if he performs with a modicum of efficiency and does not stray beyond the limits of his scholarly “competence,” he is entitled to a modicum of self-respect. Indeed, his self-respect, like his role-governed conception of himself, is a function of his assurance of the respect of his peers and, more indirectly, of the society of which his discipline is an established part.

The intellectual, on the other hand, has no such responsibility or security. Lacking a scholarly discipline, perhaps lacking the talent for achievement within such a discipline, which can hold him continuously responsible to “objective” methods and to “facts” wholly independent of himself, his only recourse is an endless dialectic and critique of general ideas. And because he is without a legitimate social role to play within society, he perforce finds himself alienated from its institutions and is left to manipulate his “ideas” in a mood of unrequited and unfocused resentment. He doesn’t so much think with his ideas as feel through them. In the discourses of an intellectual, therefore, the thing to look to is not his argument, which, where it exists, is merely a vehicle for his resentments, but rather to the effect which it is meant to induce. He presents his readers not with information but with a goad and with an outlet for their own repressed emotions of estrangement or violence. He may, in the process, tell them something, but it is doing something to them that is his real, if unavowed, aim. For him, the beginning and end of a process of reflection is not a specific problem about objective processes and events; as Professor Bell charges, he begins always with “his experience, his perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.” For him, the “world” is not a thing in itself, but rather his will and his idea, and if there is something there, in itself, then he acknowledges it only as something which he is up against and which exists only in so far as he is up against it. His business, in Marx’s words, is not to understand the world, but to change, or better, to overcome it. And if he can’t change it in any other way, he may at least reject it, and thus, by an obvious inversion, still show his superiority to it.

In this way, every statement and every discussion becomes for the intellectual an implicitly political move in an endless game of power. Of course he fancies his own moves really to be in the interest (n. b.) of “justice” or “freedom,” while those of his “opponents,” whether they invoke the names of “legitimacy” or of “law and order,” are actually made in the interest of business as usual which it is the function of the established order to protect and to promote. The sad fact remains, however, that the intellectual’s power is severely limited by the existing system. Hence, in order to maintain the illusion of his freedom or of his power to realize it, he is obliged, as Bell puts it, to embark “upon what William James called ‘the faith ladder,’ which in its vision of the future cannot distinguish possibilities from probabilities, and converts the latter into certainties.”

What is the nature of the conceptual tools with which the “free-floating” and unscholarly intellectual does his work? In order to answer this question, Bell is obliged to move from sociology to logic and semantics. Thus he speaks repeatedly, in terms which I find merely more explicit than Aron’s, of ideology as being somehow a “fusion” of thought with emotion or passion which at one and the same time does the trick of “simplify[ing] ideas, establish[ing] a claim to truth, and, in the union of the two, demand[ing] a commitment to action.” The result—and it is this which Bell most seriously objects to—is not just a “transformation” of ideas, but also a transformation of people. The typical effect of any ideological argument is, then, a kind of conversion. The road by which the ideologist comes to Damascus doesn’t matter; what matters is that he is made to see the light. Says Bell: “Ideology is the conversion of ideas into social levers. Without irony, Max Lerner once entitled a book ‘Ideas Are Weapons.’ This is the language of ideology. It is the commitment to the consequences of ideas.”

Bell is rarely more analytical, than this, but toward the end of his study he does say one further thing which is at least symptomatic of the point of view which he represents: “If the end of ideology has any meaning, it[sic]is to ask for the end of rhetoric, and rhetoricians, of ‘revolution,’ of the day when the young French anarchist Vaillant tossed a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies, and the literary critic Laurent Tailhade declared in his defense: ‘What do a few human lives matter; it was a beau geste.’” The general idea that concerns us here is not the tacit identification of ideology with revolutionary activity, especially of the more bizarre and feckless sort, but rather its identification with rhetoric.



If by “rhetoric” Bell means the use of language in order to persuade or influence others—and many things he says suggest that this is his meaning—then his vision of the end of ideology as an end to rhetoric is a Utopian fantasy. Worse, it is an evil fantasy, for it implies a conception of human relations which would deprive us of the right to address one another except for the purpose of comparing notes about matters of fact. Consider what would happen were such a fantasy to come true. In any ordinary sense, it would mean a virtual end to discourse, to communication, and to argument. For it would mean an end to any speech-act addressed to others with a view to their guidance, their instruction, their edification, or their pleasure, with a view, in short, to changing their minds. Indeed, the image of man implicit in Bell’s dream of the end of ideology is precisely one of an academic grind or functionary to which he himself, as a counter-ideologist and counter-rhetorician, is fortunately unable to conform.2

The American anti-ideologists, Bell included, regard themselves as pragmatists. However, we should remind ourselves that it is the great pragmatists who have insisted, time out of mind, that ideas have consequences and that, indeed, their operative meaning can only be construed in consequential terms. Rhetoric, from this point of view, is not necessarily a bad or degenerate form of expression; rather it is a dimension of any form of speech which is addressed to others. Furthermore, pragmatism is also a normative theory which asks us to evaluate any form of speech, and hence of rhetoric, in terms of its consequences. The question, therefore, is not whether a discourse persuades or influences other minds and other hearts, but how it does so and with what effect. Not every rhetorician is a demagogue. Plato’s Socrates professed to despise the Sophists because they were rhetoricians, and this Socrates, I surmise, is the grandfather of all the countless anti-rhetoricians and anti-ideologists from his day to Bell’s. But it should not be forgotten that Socrates himself was a master rhetorician and that his admirers ignore the fact because they believe his cause was just. Moreover, Socrates was not only a lover of truth; he was also, politically, a reactionary whose hatred of the Sophists was directed not only to their rhetoric but also to their liberal, democratic, and plebeian political and social attitudes. In saying this, I do not mean to attack our latter-day anti-ideologists by innuendo. I do mean to say that the plain effect of their rhetoric is to reinforce acceptance of our own institutional status quo and to declass those “intellectuals” who seek to modify in any radical way the fundamental structures of “Western” political life.

There remains a secondary sense of the term “rhetoric” which Bell may also have in mind. In this sense, rhetoric means eloquence. So conceived, the demand for an end to rhetoric is tantamount to a request for plain talk and, so to say, for an age of prose. So far so good. But there may be more to it than this. Elsewhere Bell harps upon the theme that “Throughout their history, Americans have had an extraordinary talent for compromise in politics and extremism in morality.” It is plain that Bell is repelled by “this moralism,” though, I gather, not so much because it is hypocritical but rather because, as moral, it is uncompromising. “The saving grace, so to speak, of American politics, was that all sorts of groups were tolerated, and the system of the ‘deal’ became the pragmatic counterpart of the philosophic principle of toleration. But in matters of manners, morals, and conduct—particularly in the small towns—there has been a ferocity of blue-nosed attitudes unmatched by other countries.” And again, “It has been one of the glories of the United States that politics has always been a pragmatic give-and-take” rather than a series of wars-to-the-death.” Of course this last is not true. Among our national “glories” have been a war for independence and a civil war, both of them (among other things) wars of principle. Our periods of “give-and-take” have usually also been periods of drift and complacency which have ended in orgies of political corruption and degradation. In one domain, however, Bell believes that our underlying political “postures” have not been “pragmatic.” “One of the unique aspects of American politics is that . . . foreign policy has always been phrased in moralistic terms. Perhaps the very nature of our emergence as an independent country forced us to constantly adopt a moral posture in regard to the rest of the world; perhaps being distant from the real centers of interest conflict allowed us to employ pieties, rather than face realities. But since foreign policy has usually been within the frame of moral rather than pragmatic discourse, the debate in the fifties became centered in moral terms.”

These passages are typical. In asking for an end to rhetoric, what Bell appears to be calling for is, among other things, an end to moral discourse and a beginning of consistent “pragmatic discourse” in every sphere of political life. What does this mean? So far as I can make out, it means an end to judgment and to principle, to praise and to blame, in the political domain and a beginning of plain, unvarnished “politicking” in the name of our “realistic” national, social, or individual “interests.” It means, in effect, that in political discourse two and only two forms of expression are to be regarded as legitimate: (a) realistic, verifiable statements of fact; and (b) bald, undisguised expressions of first-personal (singular or plural) interest. On such a view, one would be permitted to say, “I don’t like segregation and I will try—without, however, upsetting the apple cart—to do what I can to limit segregationalist practices,” but not “Segregation is an affront to the humanity of the Negro people,” or, “Those who practice segregation are unfair and unjust.” What is wrong with moral, as distinct from “pragmatic,” discourse? It is not to be doubted that moral discourse is more eloquent and more incitive, and in this sense more rhetorical, than the “pragmatic” forms of speech which Bell prefers. But what is wrong with eloquence per se? No doubt it should not be used to cloud an issue, to obscure relevant facts, or to promote unreason. But this is no more a necessary consequence of moral discourse than of any other form of eloquence. Without eloquence, especially in times of crisis, few great political movements would succeed. In fact, eloquence, including the eloquence of moral judgment, is native to the language of politics, and particularly so, as Bell himself admits, in democratic societies where persuasion of the great masses is a condition of success. Thus to put an end to eloquence would be to put an end, not only to “moralism” (which is usually nothing more than the morality of those with whom we disagree) and to “ideology,” but also to any form of politics in which great issues are stated or argued in terms of human rights and responsibilities and in which it is essential to gain the approval of the people, or their representatives, before any fundamental change in governmental policy is made. Perhaps a tightly knit, self-interested, and all-powerful elite might get along (among its members) with “pragmatic discourse” alone. But despite Bell, democratic politics does not just mean “bargaining between legitimate groups and the search for consensus.” It means also a form of politics in which men are governed by, and hence with reference to, principles and ideals—in a word, to morals and to ideology.



But now a word of caution: It is no part of my intention to suggest, much less admit, that ideology and morality are rhetoric; the equation is Bell’s, not mine. I contend only that if, as is true, ideological discourses are full of rhetoric (in the above senses), there is no reason to deplore the fact. Quite the contrary.

Webster also mentions a third sense (or senses) of “rhetoric” which for our purposes is perhaps the most interesting of all. In this sense, “rhetoric” means “ostentatious or artificial speech.” That some ideologists and moralists are ostentatious need not be denied. My own impression, however, is that academic scholars, particularly in some of the more immature sciences of man, are at least as prone to ostentatious speech (and thought) as other intellectuals. Sociology, indeed, might almost be defined as the ostentatious science. But except in beautiful women, ostentation is surely a minor vice, and only a fool would write off a whole field of study or an entire form of expression because some of its practitioners, like Molière’s learned ladies, tend to give themselves airs.

Artificiality is another matter, which will repay closer scrutiny. Now “artificiality” often connotes a way of doing things which, although not necessarily ostentatious, is mannered, contrived, studied, and “unnatural.” On occasion, a rhetoric which is artificial in this sense can be very powerful, as for example, in the poetry of Milton or in the prose of Burke and Macaulay. Among moralists and men of letters one associates it with the conservative wits of the 18th century and with the elaborate courtesy and the elegant banter of Matthew Arnold and his disciples. For obvious reasons, it is not a rhetoric characteristic of revolutionary ideologists. In our own time one runs into it only occasionally among writers of the right or the right-center. In England, Michael Oakeshott employs it with some effect, as (in another way) do T. S. Eliot and his followers. In this country, some of the so-called southern agrarians, such as Allen Tate, are minor masters of this rhetoric. But I fancy that Tate, at least, is well aware that he is fighting in a lost cause, and his style, like a ruffled cuff, is intended to give us a heightened sense of the fact. To my unaccustomed ears, the Encyclicals of Leo XIII, which are among the modern masterpieces of Catholic ideology, are also effective examples of a rhetoric of this sort. Indeed, it is precisely the impervious, anachronistic artificiality of Leo’s prose which makes one realize how remote, for better or worse, is the concessive modernity of his social thought from the radical liberalism of a Bentham or a Mill.

But “artificiality” has another connotation in this context that is more central to our theme. In this sense, I take it, rhetoric is to be contrasted with literal statement. Here I must limit my remarks mainly to political ideology, but what will be said holds also of all ideologies, including those we normally think of as religious or metaphysical. Now political ideology is nothing but political discourse (as distinct from political science) on its most general formative level. It is, that is to say, political discourse insofar as the latter addresses itself, not just to specific, piecemeal reforms, but to the guiding principles, practices, and aspirations by which politically organized societies, absolutely or else in certain typical situations, ought to be governed. This being so, political ideologies inevitably include, among their leading articles, statements of general principle or method and expressions of basic attitude, orientation, and concern which, as they stand, are so highly abstract as to appear to many minds preoccupied with day-to-day problems of “practical politics” virtually meaningless. Such statements are of course habitually formulated in terms like “general welfare,” “common good,” “justice,” “equality,” “democracy,” “security,” and the rest.

But these very terms, so natural or even essential, when one is defining and appraising political practices or systems, also tend through over-use to become mere counters which elicit from us the tired, stock response that leaves us, and hence the practices themselves, unchanged. Or worse, because our responses are dull and routine, and hence practically of no political importance, we may conclude that all general philosophical discussions of politics are pointless and that one political ideology is just as good—or bad—as any other. What does matter, so we feel, is not what we say or think about “the system,” but only what we do within it. And so, by stages, we are led to the conservative conclusion that political manifestos, declarations of independence, and constitutions (with their embarrassing ideological preambles) make no difference to society as a going concern. In short, so far as we are concerned, ideology is useless verbiage. On the other side, unfortunately, we discover to our dismay that other peoples, politically and intellectually less “advanced” than ourselves, are enflamed, sometimes to the point of revolution, by ideological discourses, fresher and more affecting, in part because less literal and less abstract, than those to which we are accustomed. And to our contempt for our own ineffectual ideological abstractions we now add a positive hatred (or fear) of an ideological rhetoric which suddenly endows those same abstractions with a new life that disturbs our own.



It should be observed, however, that our very hatred is itself a backhanded tribute to the power of ideology. And if, out of a misplaced loyalty to “reason,” we merely limit ourselves to “exposing” it, we stand in danger of losing our world. Most of us, realizing that the world is never well lost, find ourselves drawn back inescapably into the ideological struggle which, if we are to win it for ends that are right and just, requires that we produce a counter-rhetoric more imaginative, more distinguished, and more durable than that of our opponents. But if, as literalists of the imagination, we still decline to go the whole hog, resorting now only to formal, reaffirmation of the old abstract “principles” which no later than yesterday we professed to find meaningless, who will believe us? Why should they? They have heard the same golden words mouthed a thousand times on the party platforms by hacks who have no notion of their meaning. And, if it comes to that, what do they mean?

In science it normally suffices to state a fact, and one man may do this as well and as accurately as another. But in the sphere of conduct much more is involved. For here we have to do with matters of attitude and intention and with problems of authenticity, legitimacy, and authority. Here words must not only predict what will be but determine what shall be; they must not only inform but also prepare and initiate lines of action. And what is it that is being determined, prepared, and initiated? This, so I contend, can be fully revealed only through the “poetry” which the ideologist may afford us.

Since Plato, rationalists have ever been afraid of poetry. And even those who profess not to be so worry lest “the people” confuse the true poet with the counterfeit. But just as true poetry, known and loved, is the only real protection against the malefactions of pseudo-poets, so also its ideological analogue is the only guarantee against the factitious “myths” of a Rosenberg, a Hitler, or a Mussolini. Our worry, in America, should be not that the false rhetoric of “foreign” ideologies may divert our people from their loyalties to our establishment, but that we do so little to replenish the fund of ideological poetry with which the founding fathers, along with Lincoln and a few others, have provided us. Our contemporary ideology is, or seems to be, all ghostwritten. The voice sounds as reedy and hollow as are the men who contrive it. But if we should lose the power both to create and passionately to respond to a great ideological rhetoric, we would also lose the power to tell the difference between the phony and the real thing.

Further, figurative and hence rhetorical language enables, or compels, men to perform in advance of experience those crucial symbolic actions and imaginative experiments upon which, as Dewey has persuasively argued, genuinely rational judgments of practice and of value entirely depend. Know the truth, and the truth will set you free: how dangerous and how misleading is this half-truth. How, in a moral and practical sense, are we to know it? I can assent to the proposition that on the first day of an atomic war every major city in the United States would be destroyed, without in the least realizing, in human terms, what the statement really means. In order that I may even remotely grasp such an idea, in absence of the event, I must somehow try symbolically to live through the horror and the agony of such a calamity. But this is precisely what the cold, literal, objective statement of fact does not require me to do. To this end, therefore, it is essential that I find a way of thinking and talking about the fact which will make me realize from a practical, and even, if you please, from a metaphysical point of view, what it comes to. For most of us, this can be done only through the artificial linguistic devices, known to every reader of fiction and of poetry, which enable us to perform “in imagination,” as we say, those symbolic actions in which alone the “reality” of literary art exists. To disdain “rhetoric,” therefore, is to disdain the very condition through which full practical understanding and judgment is possible. And to deny oneself its use is not to guarantee the preservation of scientific “objectivity” but to preclude the possibility of really being objective in trying to decide, in political terms, what one’s way of life is to be.



It remains to say a word about “simplism,” that final bogey of the anti-ideological mentality. Through rhetoric, according to Bell, ideology infuses ideas with passion, thus, as might be expected, winning friends and influencing people. But the principal underhanded intellectual (or is it, too, rhetorical?) trick of the ideologists is to “simplify ideas.” It therefore seems necessary to remind the anti-ideologist that simplification, so far from being a fault peculiar to ideology, is, as William James well knew, a large part of the saving virtue of rationality itself. To oppose simplism on principle, in politics as in every other sphere of activity, is not to make a legitimate demand for recognition of the complexities and diversities of political life, but, in effect, to ask for an abandonment of policy and a fatal acquiescence in the drift of events. For simplification is an essential feature of any rational initiation of action. To refuse to simplify when one confronts a problem is in effect to reject the obligation to reach a solution; it is to make a game of possibilities and hence to move automatically outside the context of agency and choice. Every procedure that helps us to make decisions does so precisely by reducing the range of possibilities which we may reasonably be expected to consider. And every method, in setting a limit to the considerations that ought to be taken into account, thereby secures our deliberations against an endless spread of doubts.

On this score particularly, Professor Bell seems merely disingenuous when he tells us—incidentally letting a fair-sized ideological cat out of his own elastic bag—that although “There is now more than ever some need for Utopia, in the sense that men need—as they have always needed—some vision of their potential, some manner of fusing passion with intelligence. . . . The ladder to the City of Heaven can no longer be a ‘faith ladder,’ but an empirical one; a Utopia has to specify where one wants to go, how to get there, the costs of the enterprise, and some realization of, and justification for the determination of who is to pay.” There is a rather terrible irony in the fact that Bell, who in other contexts is so prone to rail against those who think in terms of all or none, should find it so hard at this point to think in terms of degree. Were one seriously to try, in detail, and at the outset, to meet all his requirements for a “good” Utopia, the magnitude and complexity of the task would paralyze thought. The “good” Utopian, like the unholy ideologist, must settle for considerably less if he is ever to bring his deliberations to a conclusion. And if he eventually does reach a conclusion, then no matter how long he reflects and however precise his calculations, it will have been conceived in sin. For it will always reflect a radical simplification of the possibilities and the alternatives which a more scrupulous Utopian would think it obligatory to consider.

But Bell’s advocacy of even his “good” Utopias is, at best, half-hearted. For he really has no faith in any long-range scheme aimed at the amelioration of society as a whole. “Ideology,” he tells us, “makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues on their individual merits.” But in one sense this is true of any rule, any procedure, and any plan, including the plans of piecemeal social engineers like Bell and Popper. What would be the point of any such scheme, however limited in its scope, unless it relieved us of the necessity of confronting every blessed individual issue on its (otherwise) individual, merits? And if it comes to that, what is an “individual issue,” and what is it to confront one on its “individual merits”? Is the issue of desegregation, for example, one such issue or is it many? Indeed, is the issue of desegregating one individual classroom in one individual school in one God-forsaken county of the state of Mississippi an individual issue? And if it is, what, pray, are its individual merits? How far do these extend?

One of the overwhelming advantages of a bill of human rights (which is nothing but a schedule of enforced ideological commitments), is that it drastically reduces the number of “issues” over which men in societies must continue to quarrel. In this way it reduces the terrible wear and tear of political life which, even in the best-run societies, is nearly unendurable. Bell and his allies, following Popper (and at a distance Bergson), are admirers of the “open society.” But of course a completely open society, if such ever existed, would be not a society, but a chaos. If an “open society” is one in which each individual issue is decided, ad hoc, on its own peculiar merits, then who wants an “open society”? And if a “closed society” is one in which, owing to the presence of a prevailing ideology (or constitution), many issues are, in any practical sense, dead issues, why then let us by all means continue to have a closed society. Were we Americans seriously to invoke the principle that individual cases should be settled exclusively on their (otherwise) individual merits, we would have to repudiate our Declaration of Independence and to dismantle our whole constitutional system and the characteristic rule of law which it provides.

Is this what the anti-ideologists want? The question is by no means merely “rhetorical.” Consider, for example, what that most determined and most consistent of anti-ideologists, Professor Michael Oakeshott, has to say about the Declaration of Independence. It is, he tells us, “A characteristic product of the saeculum rationalisticum. It represents the politics of the felt need interpreted with the aid of an ideology. And it is not surprising that it should have become one of the sacred documents of the politics of Rationalism, and, together with the similar documents of the French Revolution, the inspiration and pattern of many later adventures in the rationalistic reconstruction of Society.” Whatever else may be true of Professor Oakeshott, he at least knows an ideology when he sees one and is candid enough to say so. It would clear the air if his fellow anti-ideologists on this side of the Atlantic would speak as clearly and unequivocally.



Let us no longer mince words. Our own anti-ideological foxes are no more “empirical” and no less rhetorical than their leonine opponents; they are, on broad issues, merely more indecisive and more eclectic. As it stands, their point of view is so lacking both in consistency and in clarity that, as I have discovered at some cost, it is virtually impossible to argue with them without fear of doing them some frightful injustice. Still, out of a sophisticated but paralyzing fear of over-simplification, they have managed to fashion a kind of counter-ideology, or fetish, of complexity, difficulty, and uniqueness. They tell us that “the present belongs to the living” and that we should lift from our shoulders “the heavy hand of the future” as well as “the dead hand of the past.” Yet they evidently have not the courage to say that the preamble to the American Constitution, which speaks among other things of securing the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” is so much wicked ideological flourish and moonshine. Their “pluralism” has become a kind of mania which, when pressed to its own counter-ideological extremes, leads inescapably (as William James long ago perceived) to anarchism and, at last, to nihilism. Were their political and social attitudes generally to prevail in the West—and it is primarily of the West that they speak in talking of the end of ideology—the result would be a pessimistic carpe diem philosophy which would render us helpless in the world struggle against the ideology of Communism. At home, in the political parties, in the Congress, and in the courts, it continually weakens what remains of our national commitment to the ideological principles that animate our constitutional system; in the Presidency, it provides merely the covering excuses for a spate of uncorrelated, “piecemeal” moves which, however admirable from a tactical point of view and however skillful as “pragmatic” politics, result in an ever increasing loss of basic political control and social direction. Curiously, the over-all picture is one of Hegelian “gray on gray.” The only difference is that unlike our anti-ideologists Hegel knew that gray on gray is the color of barrenness, of late autumn and approaching winter.


1 In this section I have been aided by Stanley W. Moore’s The Critique of Capitalist Democracy, An Introduction to the Theory of the State in Marx, Engels, and Lenin, Paine-Whitman Publishers, New York, 1957. Moore’s fourth chapter, “Ideology and Alienation,” pp. 114-137, is highly compressed and schematic, but I know of no other discussion of the subject which, within its limits, is so clear and so accurate. I have also benefited from Norman Birnbaum’s The Sociological Study of Ideology (1940-60), Current Sociology, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1960, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, England. Birnbaum’s essay, which he subtitles “A Trend Report,” is a masterly survey of current literature on the subject of ideology, including Marxist ideological theory. It also contains an invaluable critical bibliography.

2 What Bell does not sufficiently emphasize is that the intellectuals’ “faith ladders” have indeed converted possibilities into certainties. Otherwise it is hard to see why he and his fellow anti-ideologists make such a hullabaloo about ideology and why they are enthralled with the thought that we have reached the end of the age of ideology. The simple fact is that ever since the French Revolution the intellectuals, with the help of their ideologies, have been moving mountains. And if their ideologies are exhausted, as Bell contends, this does not necessarily entail the end of ideology as such. No doubt the old ideologies of the right and the left have lost much of their power to persuade, and no doubt, all over the world, radicalism and intellectualism in our time must inevitably take new forms. But they will persist, by Bell’s own analysis, until every intellectual has become a scholar (or worker) and until every scholar becomes a scholar (or worker) merely; that is, until there are no full-or part-time “out-groups” (to employ a fashionable term of sociological analysis) and no general ideas for them to think with. At this point one begins to have visions of an academic Utopia within which there are no “free-floating” intellectuals, no alienated, critical minds, such as Professor Bell’s, that are not wholly committed to their vocations and that possess an over-plus of energy and passions that is not expended in the conduct of their own “researches.” In such a Utopia (if I may speak metaphorically) there would be no New York and no Concord, but only a series of semi-urban centers for semi-advanced study for semi-advanced scholars who would sternly deny themselves the use of any concept or the affirmation of any statement whose “practical bearings” cannot be shown to lie wholly within the range of their legitimate scholarly activity or work. Such a Utopia, I fancy, would have no place even for counter-ideologists like Professor Bell whose own “restless vanity” (the phrase is his) is evidently not sated by the rewards that accrue from the performance of his scholarly labors.

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