"Reflections on the End of Ideology"


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The phrase "the end of ideology" is becoming a catchword which sums up a major tendency of our time. Daniel Bell chose it as the title for his recently published collection of essays on American politics and culture. Edward Shils in his book on McCarthyism and in several later essays contrasts the "ideological politics" which he hopes and believes to be declining in the West with what he calls "the politics of civility." Seymour Martin Lipset's book Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics might have been called with equal appropriateness "The End of Political Man," considering that Lipset is largely concerned with documenting the attenuation of the class struggle in Western countries and that the term "political man" unavoidably suggests a militant partisan. On the more rarefied level of political philosophy and covering a far longer historical time-span--from the Enlightenment to the present day--Judith Shklar pursues the same theme in her book After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith.

All of these writers, with the partial exception of Miss Shklar, tend to favor the development they describe, although their precise attitudes differ, some taking a "tragic" view of politics and the human condition while others are complacent. Their overall verdict has by now become something of a cliche, repeated endlessly by columnists, journalists, and often by politicians anxious to appear as sound moderates. It becomes necessary, therefore, to ask just what the "end of ideology" means. Does it mean the end of any important domestic political conflicts in Western industrial societies? Does it mean simply the absence of new social and political movements? Does it imply that a consciously Utopian view of human possibilities is both dangerous and irrelevant? To what degree is the judgment that the ideological conflicts of the past are not likely to recur associated with approval for a politics of compromise, of piecemeal reform and short-run goals? Rather than address myself directly to these questions, I should like to review the two related but partially independent historical developments to which the heralds of the end of ideology are reacting.

First and foremost, of course, is the experience of totalitarianism, especially of a Soviet totalitarianism that has besmirched the heritage of the Left. The Left, as Philip Toynbee has put it, now has "blood on its hands" and no amount of protestation can restore the pristine moral authority it once possessed. The Soviet experience has had a traumatic impact, creating a suspicion of politics as such and especially of any politics making far-reaching demands and inspiring even modest Utopian hopes. The intensity and authenticity of this recoil from politics is not to be dismissed by easy references to "failure of nerve" or "Cold War chauvinism." Motives of cowardice and opportunism were, to be sure, present in some cases and a number of writers made rather nasty exploitative use of the liberal-radical mea culpa theme during the years when attitudes toward Communism became a national obsession. Some who were once drawn to Communism, however fleetingly, have never recovered from the shock of having been wrong about the Soviet Union, while others of the old anti-Stalinist Left have succumbed to the corrupting effects of having been proven so utterly and dramatically right about a major historical issue.

Yet whatever one's relation to Stalinism may have been, a shocked withdrawal from any effort to transcend what is in the name of an exalted version of what might be was a genuine and, in light of the realities that evoked it, an understandable response. Thus had "ideology" acquired its present bad name, becoming identified with secular messianism, chiliastic millenarianism, and, ultimately, with the nihilism and power-worship of totalitarian mass movements.

Barely fifteen years ago the term lacked the ominous overtones it possesses today. One meaning, then, of the "end of ideology" is renunciation of long-range and broad political goals by aging intellectuals who are in a chastened mood after the experiences of recent history. The end of ideology means the fear of ideology, or rather of the destructive mass emotions that ideology has proved capable of unleashing. The cruelty and fanaticism of organized masses is seen as a possibility inherent in modern industrial society and all social movements are anxiously scrutinized for their vulnerability to the totalitarian spirit. A kind of political hypochondria tends to result, viewing as safe only a politics of compromise and limited goals.

But if totalitarianism is the most crashing refutation of the nineteenth century belief in progress, whether in its evolutionary or its revolutionary-apocalyptic form, the counter view of the future as nightmare is now losing its authority as well. If the Age of Apocalyptic Hope is dead, the Age of Apocalyptic Fear is also passing. Orwell's 1984, [Hannah] Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, Milosz's The Captive Mind--the three books which captured most fully and imaginatively the essence of totalitarianism--today seem less relevant than when they were published a decade or so ago, in part, of course, owing to the very influence they have exerted. The pall is lifting; in the West at least, the lesson appears to have been learned.

Increasingly the second development encouraging belief in the end of ideology looms larger. In this version the end of ideology means the end of the class struggle, the modification of late capitalism by welfare legislation, redistributist taxation, the consolidation of powerful unions, and the acceptance by all political parties of Keynesian full employment policies. Economic inequalities, even extreme ones that are hard to justify, have by no means disappeared-some men are a good deal more affluent than others in the affluent society. Sources of social tension remain in the position of victimized racial minorities and marginal groups of unorganized workers and agricultural laborers. But it is impossible to believe any longer that the plight of these groups is intrinsic to "the system" in the classical Marxist sense. Even references to the "war economy" as a catch-all explanation of the failure of capitalism to exhibit internal contradictions have vanished from radical discourse in recent years, outside of the Marxist sects. The arguments and evidence mustered by sociologists like Bell and Lipset indicating that the moderation of party and class conflicts in the West is more re than a temporary or cyclic phenomenon are not easily refuted. Even the struggle between the left and right wings of the British Labor Party is largely a disagreement over electoral strategy. Fierce electoral contests between parties representing the relatively privileged and the relatively deprived continue in all Western countries, as Lipset acknowledges in Political Man. But his book is largely a documentation of the reduced intensity of the struggle now that "the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved: the workers have achieved industrial and political citizenship; the conservatives have accepted the welfare state; and the democratic left has recognized that an increase in over-all state power carries with it more dangers to freedom than solutions to economic problems."

At this point, however, an air of complacency begins to suffuse the argument. Moderation is approved not merely as a "lesser evil', or as the only visible alternative but for its own sake, and impatience is displayed with those who continue to find fault with society. Lipset maintains that "many liberal intellectuals in the 1950s know that they should like and defend their society, but they still have the uneasy feeling that they are betraying their obligation as intellectuals to attack and criticize." The unmistakable suggestion is that no real grounds remain for attacking and criticizing, that the continuing dissidence of intellectuals represents a neurotic fixation on an anachronistic role.

Now Lipset and Bell are both aware of the degree to which complaints about the boredom, moral emptiness, and cultural mediocrity of contemporary life have tended to replace a truly political radicalism. They point out that mass culture, unlike economic exploitation or racial discrimination, is not obviously susceptible to correction by political means so that campaigns against it are hardly continuous with the older radicalism. Moreover, critics of mass culture borrow many of their themes from European aristocratic and romantic reactionaries. Ideas, of course, are not invalidated by the politics of their creators and many of the European theorists of mass society and culture are challenging figures who cannot be easily categorized. Nevertheless there is something a bit anomalous about egalitarian socialists drawing so liberally on thinkers whom they would have been--and in some cases were--roundly condemning not so very long ago.

In short, Bell and Lipset are right in contending that much contemporary cultural criticism is ambiguous in its political implications and has its origin in intellectual traditions remote from the political and economic radicalism that it often claims to be extending. But to point this out, while it may be a good polemical gambit, is not to eliminate the genuine problem which is at issue. Both writers often give the impression of thinking that because addiction to television is possible only where high living standards prevail, critics of mass culture ought to shut up unless they are prepared to embrace T. S. Eliot's political as well as his cultural opinions. And both of them finally try to reconcile the tension between the claims of cultural excellence and social justice by resorting to flagrant apologetics on behalf of American culture.

In a curious sense Bell and Lipset remain too Marxist, too determinedly "Political men" themselves. This is especially true of Lipset who, as in the remark cited above about intellectuals, seems to be saying "the class struggle is over, the contradictions of capitalism have been resolved, so why do these people keep on bitching?" In a much discussed essay, he even argues that the special "class interests" of intellectuals are well taken care of, now that grants and jobs are lavished on them and their typical occupations are highly esteemed by the public. But "intellectual" and "Professor" or even "artist" are not necessarily synonymous categories. And there is something a bit philistine about Lipset's supposition that the intellectuals' lack of enthusiasm for life in the United States stems from nothing more substantial than the alleged American habit of tapping heads instead of tipping hats when confronted with men of learning and cultivation. His elaborate demonstration that Americans are becoming more respectful of intellect when it is properly labeled and bottled and that, unlike Europeans, they are disinclined to show deference to anyone, bankers, statesmen, bureaucrats, or professors, is not as not relevant as he thinks.

Yet whatever the tone of voice--self-satisfied, nostalgic, full of foreboding--with which it is asserted, it is undeniable that intellectuals no longer believe in apocalyptic social transformations, in "total" solutions to be achieved by political action in the traditional sense. It is also clear that we are moving into a post-bourgeois, though not Post-capitalist, era in which the class struggle is ceasing to be the major source of social change and the most enduring and central issue in the political life of Western nations. This being the case, there seems to me to be little advantage or merit, in America especially, in retaining the label "socialism" to describe the outlook of those whom, for want of a better term, must be called secular radicals. Socialism is too closely linked, both as idea and movement, to the historical objectives of the working class in the century following the Industrial Revolution; specifically, to the issues of economic equality and security posed by the unregulated capitalism of the past. Unlike many Dissent contributors and editors, I do not believe the term can sustain the entire weight of humanist protest against the alternately terrifying and stupefying trends of modern society. I prefer Judith Shklar's insistence on the need for a return to the spirit of the Enlightenment, the original source of our ethos, to its freshness, questing vigor, and bold sense of possibility.

The threat of nuclear war, the population explosion, and the rise of the peoples of the world's underdeveloped regions pose the most immediate and truly monumental problems, dangers, and opportunities of our time. But these too are resistant to the old terms of ideological debate between left and right. Though not wishing to appear to deny their urgency (how could one?), I would insist that the implications of the end of ideology as a development in the internal politics of the West must be examined independently.

Considering party politics in the narrowest sense, it needs to be emphasized that the celebrated virtues of moderation and compromise cannot become manifest unless, to begin with, there are conflicting political demands to be moderated and compromised. Otherwise, politics becomes a dull if intricate game played by professionals. The extravagant admiration bestowed by much of the press on such ordinary political operators as [Richard] Nixon and Lyndon Johnson is a sign of how widely accepted such a conception of politics has become in recent years. But what if politics is in fact reduced to debate over minor adjustments among interest groups under conditions where no major group is disenfranchised either literally or figuratively and all are broadly satisfied with the status quo? Can we not then afford to leave things to the technicians, specialists in the arts of legislative and administrative bargaining, and settle back to applaud the end of ideology? Even if we assume, falsely, that the United States has reached such a happy, or at least somnolent, state, moderation will "work" only if everyone plays the game, if no group with any bargaining power stands firm on behalf of a principle or goal opposed by others. And this is manifestly not the case in America today. By elevating compromise and "realism" into the cardinal political virtues, the anti-theology of moderation plays into the hands of Southern segregationists and Republican rightwingers who remain less impressed with these virtues than many liberals. The view of the former come to represent one of the extremes to be compromised, while the other "extreme" goes by default to--the NAACP and Senator [Hubert] Humphrey.

The point is not that these worthies are so deficient. Nor even that they can scarcely be called radical--almost by definition we do not expect to find radicals sharing social power and political representation with conservatives and reactionaries. But the total absence of any influential body of radical opinion in the country has the effect of narrowing the spectrum of opinion to the point where "moderation" becomes simple stand-pattism. When intellectuals begin to look at politics through the eyes of the professional politicians, they are failing to perform their role as unattached critics and visionaries. If "ideology" is by now, and perhaps with good reason, an irretrievably fallen word, is it necessary that "Utopia" suffer the same fate? Is it to be equated permanently with the drawing up of abstract blueprints of the future to which the present must be ruthlessly sacrificed? Or with the empty myth that validates the "organizational weapon" of the totalitarian party? Utopia is "nowhere," located neither in space nor in time--it is not the future "struggling to be born." But Utopia is not for that reason an incredible dream, a fantasy violating the limits of the possible. On the contrary it is the vision of a possible society, a vision that must deeply penetrate human consciousness before the question of how it might be fulfilled is seriously considered--and by that time we will already have advanced a long way towards its fulfillment. To convert Utopia immediately into a chiliastic political goal or to envisage it as the inevitable or even the probable end of history or to use it manipulatively to legitimize the day-by-day objectives and tactics of an organization--these are corruptions of the Utopian imagination. In justification of "piecemeal technology" (Karl Popper's phrase), Daniel Bell exclaims "but look where the eschatological visions have led!" Piecemeal technology is indeed necessary and important, but in the very same chapter, a valuable and sympathetic examination of the thought of the young Marx, Bell observes that Marx, Lenin, and their followers "sought to win millions of people for the idea of a new society without the slightest thought about the shape of that future society and its problems." In other words, there is a sense in which the Marxists were not visionary enough: they were too caught up in the upheavals of their time, too overwhelmed by the urgencies of social crisis. True, one understands the world in order to change it. But to see the acquisition of supreme political power as the sole means of changing it is to take too narrowly instrumental a view of history, a view, moreover, which is easily corruptible as we have teamed to our pain.

The very fact that the possibility of transforming crises and conflicts has vanished frees the Utopian imagination from the terrible urgencies of economic class struggle and political collapse. But this is not an unqualified blessing, for the end of ideology also brings with the danger of a placid acceptance of the given, of the loss, in Stuart Hughes' words, of "any notion of transcendence in social and cultural pursuits." Already we can see this happening to mass publics in Western society. The residues of Marxist "realism" about the facts of power and the built-in determinism, however benign in spirit, of contemporary sociological thought encourage intellectuals to follow in the same direction. It is neither vanity nor nostalgia for the past to resist these tendencies in the name of what man might yet become.


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/end-of-i-wrong.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:32 EDT