The Persistence of Ideology

THEODORE DALRYMPLE

Grand ideas still drive history.

Ideological politics: the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
salutes Bosnian Muslim recruits to the Waffen-SS
in 1943.

In 1960, the sociologist Daniel Bell published The End of Ideology, in which he argued that ideology -- understood in the sense of a coherent, single-minded philosophical outlook or system of abstractions intended as much as a lever to change society as a description to explain it -- was dead, at least in the West, and in the United States in particular. A combination of democracy and mass prosperity had "solved" the political question that had agitated humanity since the time of Plato. There were to be no more grand and transformative, if woefully erroneous, ideas; all that remained was public administration, with, at most, squabbles over small details of policy. The new version of the old saw, mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body, was a capitalist economy in a liberal democratic polity. That was the lesson of history.

In 1989, as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were reforming -- indeed collapsing -- so rapidly that it became clear that Communism could not long survive anywhere in Europe, Francis Fukuyama went one step beyond Bell and wrote an essay for The National Interest titled "The End of History?" In this soon-to-be-famous article, later expanded into a book, Fukuyama suggested that the end of ideology that Bell saw in the West was now global. By "the end of history," he did not mean the end of events, of course; one team or another would continue to win the Super Bowl, and there might yet be wars between national rivals. But broadly, history had given its lesson and mankind had taken it. Henceforth, those who resisted the march of liberal democracy were like the Luddites, those English workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution who smashed machines, blaming them for destroying the independent livelihoods of workers at home.

At the end of his essay, however, Fukuyama -- more concerned to understand the world than to change it, by contrast with Marx -- implicitly raised the question of the role of ideology in the world's moral economy. With no ideological struggles to occupy their minds, what will intellectuals have to do or think about? Virtually by definition, they like to address themselves to large and general questions, not small and particular ones: as Isaiah Berlin would say, by temperament, they are hedgehogs, who know one large thing, not foxes, who know many small things. Fukuyama admitted that he would miss ideology, if only as something to oppose. "I have ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its North Atlantic and Asian offshoots," he wrote. "Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again."

As it turned out, of course, we did not have long (let alone centuries) to suffer existential boredom. Our dogmatic slumbers -- to use Kant's phrase for the philosophic state from which reading David Hume roused him -- had barely begun when a group of young fanatics flew commercial airliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, thus demonstrating that pronouncements of the death of both ideology and history were somewhat premature.

 

In truth, we should have known it, or at least guessed it, without needing to be reminded. Fukuyama's concluding sentences contain a hint of the psychological function that ideology plays. It is not just disgruntlement with the state of the world that stimulates the development and adoption of ideologies. After all, disgruntlement with society there has always been and always will be. Dissatisfaction is the permanent state of mankind, at least of civilized mankind. Not every dissatisfied man is an ideologist, however: for if he were, there would hardly be anyone who was not. Yet ideology, at least as a mass phenomenon, is a comparatively recent development in human history.

The attractions of ideology are not so much to be found in the state of the world -- always lamentable, but sometimes improving, at least in certain respects -- but in states of mind.

Who, then, are ideologists? They are people needy of purpose in life, not in a mundane sense (earning enough to eat or to pay the mortgage, for example) but in the sense of transcendence of the personal, of reassurance that there is something more to existence than existence itself. The desire for transcendence does not occur to many people struggling for a livelihood. Avoiding material failure gives quite sufficient meaning to their lives. By contrast, ideologists have few fears about finding their daily bread. Their difficulty with life is less concrete. Their security gives them the leisure, their education the need, and no doubt their temperament the inclination, to find something above and beyond the flux of daily life.

If this is true, then ideology should flourish where education is widespread, and especially where opportunities are limited for the educated to lose themselves in grand projects, or to take leadership roles to which they believe that their education entitles them. The attractions of ideology are not so much to be found in the state of the world -- always lamentable, but sometimes improving, at least in certain respects -- but in states of mind. And in many parts of the world, the number of educated people has risen far faster than the capacity of economies to reward them with positions they believe commensurate with their attainments. Even in the most advanced economies, one will always find unhappy educated people searching for the reason that they are not as important as they should be.

 

One of the first to notice the politicization of intellectuals was the French writer Julien Benda, whose 1927 La trahison des clercs -- "the treason of the clerks," with "clerk" understood in its medieval sense as an educated person distinct from the uneducated laity -- gave a phrase to educated discourse. Today, people most frequently use the phrase to signify the allegiance that intellectuals gave to Communism, despite the evident fact that the establishment of Communist regimes led everywhere and always to a decrease in the kind of intellectual freedom and respect for individual rights that intellectuals claimed to defend.

Benda meant something much wider by it, though support for Communism would have come under his rubric: the increasing tendency of intellectuals to pursue lines of thought not for the sake of truth, or for guiding humanity sub specie aeternitatis, but for the sake of attaining power by adopting, justifying, and manipulating the current political passions of sections of humanity, whether national, racial, religious, or economic. The political passions that Benda most feared when he wrote his book were nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, which then had plenty of intellectual apologists, and which indeed soon proved cataclysmic in their effects; but really he was defending the autonomy of intellectual and artistic life from political imperatives.

That ideological ways of thinking have survived the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would not have surprised Benda. The collapse did severely reduce Marxism's attractiveness, and despite decades of attempts by intellectuals to dissociate the doctrine's supposed merits from the horrors of the Soviet system, it was only natural that many people believed that the death of Marxism meant the death of ideology itself. But as Benda might have predicted, what resulted instead was the balkanization of ideology -- the emergence of a wider choice of ideologies for adoption by those so inclined.

 

The most obvious example of an ideology that came into prominence -- or better, prominently into our consciousness -- after Communism's fall was Islamism. Because of its emphasis on returning to Islamic purity, and its apparent -- indeed noisy -- rejection of modernity, most people failed to notice how modern a phenomenon Islamism was, not just in time but in spirit. This is evident from reading just one of Islamism's foundational texts: Sayyid Qutb's Milestones, first published in 1964. The imprint of Marxism-Leninism is deep upon it, especially the Leninist component.

Because of its emphasis on returning to Islamic purity, and its apparent -- indeed noisy -- rejection of modernity, most people failed to notice how modern a phenomenon Islamism was, not just in time but in spirit.

Qutb starts with cultural criticism that some might find eerily prescient. "The leadership of mankind by Western man is now on the decline, not because Western culture has become poor materially or because its economic and military power has become weak," he writes. "The period of the Western system has come to an end primarily because it is deprived of those life-giving values which enabled it to be the leader of mankind." Since, according to Qutb, those "life-giving values" cannot come from the Eastern Bloc, he thinks (like Juan Domingo Perón, the Argentinean dictator, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister) that a Third Way must exist: which, he says, can only be Islam.

Just as in Marx only the proletariat bears the whole of humanity's interests, so in Qutb only Muslims (true ones, that is) do. Everyone else is a factionalist. In Qutb's conception, the state withers away under Islam, just as it does -- according to Marx -- under Communism, once the true form is established. In Marx, the withering away comes about because there are no sectional material interests left that require a state to enforce them; in Qutb, there is no sectional interest left once true Islam is established because everyone obeys God's law without the need for interpretation and therefore for interpreters. And when all obey God's law, no conflict can arise because the law is perfect; therefore there is no need for a state apparatus.

 

One finds a unity of theory and praxis in both Qutb's Islamism and Marxism-Leninism. "Philosophy and revolution are inseparable," said Raya Dunayevskaya, once Trotsky's secretary and a prominent American Marxist (insofar as such can be said to have existed). And here is Qutb: "Thus these two -- preaching and the movement -- united, confront ‘the human situation' with all the necessary methods. For the achievement of freedom of man on earth -- of all mankind throughout the earth -- it is necessary that these methods should work side by side."

Like Lenin, Qutb thought that violence would be necessary against the ruling class (of bourgeois in Lenin's case, unbelievers in Qutb's).

Like Lenin, Qutb thought that violence would be necessary against the ruling class (of bourgeois in Lenin's case, unbelievers in Qutb's): "Those who have usurped the authority of God and are oppressing God's creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching." Again like Lenin, Qutb believed that until human authority disappeared, the leader's authority must be complete. Referring to "the Arab" of the Meccan period -- an age whose moral qualities he wants to restore -- Qutb says: "He was to be trained to follow the discipline of a community which is under the direction of a leader, and to refer to this leader in every matter and to obey his injunctions, even though they might be against his habit or taste." Not much there with which Lenin could have disagreed. The British Stalinist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of himself: "The Party had the first, or more precisely, the only real claim on our lives. . . . Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed."

Qutb is as explicit as Lenin that his party should be a vanguard and not a mass party, for only a vanguard will prove sufficiently dedicated to bring about the revolution. And like Leninism, Qutb's Islamism is dialectical:

[Islam] does not face practical problems with abstract theories, nor does it confront various stages with unchangeable means. Those who talk about Jihaad in Islam and quote Qur'anic verses do not take into account this aspect, nor do they understand the nature of the various stages through which the movement develops, or the relationship of the verses revealed at various occasions with each stage.

Compare this with Lenin's Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder:

Right doctrinairism persisted in recognizing only the old forms, and became utterly bankrupt, for it did not notice the new content. Left doctrinairism persists in the unconditional repudiation of certain old forms, failing to see that the new content is forcing its way through all and sundry forms, that it is our duty as Communists to master all forms, to learn how, with the maximum rapidity, to supplement one form with another, to substitute one for another, and to adapt our tactics to any such change that does not come from our class or from our efforts.

There are many other parallels between Leninism and Qutb's Islamism, among them the incompatibility of each with anything else, entailing a fight to the finish supposedly followed by permanent bliss for the whole of mankind; a tension between complete determinism (by history and by God, respectively) and the call to intense activism; and the view that only with the installation of their systems does Man become truly himself. For Qutb's worldview, therefore, the term Islamo-Leninism would be a more accurate description than Islamofascism.

Feminists continued to see every human problem as a manifestation of patriarchy, civil rights activists as a manifestation of racism, homosexual-rights activists as a manifestation of homophobia, anti-globalists as a manifestation of globalization, and radical libertarians as a manifestation of state regulation.

Qutb was a strange man: he never married, for example, because (so he claimed) he found no woman of sufficient purity for him. You wouldn't need to be Freud to find the explanation suspect, or to find his reaction to Greeley, Colorado, in 1950, where he spent time on a scholarship -- he saw it as a hotbed of unrestrained vice -- somewhat hysterical, a cover for something seething deeply and disturbingly inside him. Devotion to an ideology can provide an answer of sorts to personal problems, and since personal problems are common, it isn't surprising that a number of people choose ideology as the solution.

Ideological thinking is not confined to the Islamists in our midst. The need for a simplifying lens that can screen out the intractabilities of life, and of our own lives in particular, springs eternal; and with the demise of Marxism in the West, at least in its most economistic form, a variety of substitute ideologies have arisen from which the disgruntled may choose.

Most started life as legitimate complaints, but as political reforms dealt with reasonable demands, the demands transformed themselves into ideologies, thus illustrating a fact of human psychology: rage is not always proportionate to its occasion but can be a powerful reward in itself. Feminists continued to see every human problem as a manifestation of patriarchy, civil rights activists as a manifestation of racism, homosexual-rights activists as a manifestation of homophobia, anti-globalists as a manifestation of globalization, and radical libertarians as a manifestation of state regulation.

How delightful to have a key to all the miseries, both personal and societal, and to know personal happiness through the single-minded pursuit of an end for the whole of humanity! At all costs, one must keep at bay the realization that came early in life to John Stuart Mill, as he described it in his Autobiography. He asked himself:

"Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

This is the question that all ideologists fear, and it explains why reform, far from delighting them, only increases their anxiety and rage. It also explains why traditional religious belief is not an ideology in the sense in which I am using the term, for unlike ideology, it explicitly recognizes the limitations of earthly existence, what we can expect of it, and what we can do by our own unaided efforts. Some ideologies have the flavor of religion; but the absolute certainty of, say, the Anabaptists of Münster, or of today's Islamists, is ultimately irreligious, since they claimed or claim to know in the very last detail what God requires of us.

 

The most popular and widest-ranging ideology in the West today is environmentalism, replacing not only Marxism but all the nationalist and xenophobic ideologies that Benda accused intellectuals of espousing in the 1920s. Now, no one who has suffered respiratory difficulties because of smog, or seen the effects of unrestrained industrial pollution, can be indifferent to the environmental consequences of man's activities; pure laissez-faire will not do. But it isn't difficult to spot in environmentalists' work something more than mere concern with a practical problem. Their writings often show themselves akin to the calls to repentance of seventeenth-century divines in the face of plague epidemics, but with the patina of rationality that every ideology needs to disguise its true source in existential angst.

This is the question that all ideologists fear, and it explains why reform, far from delighting them, only increases their anxiety and rage. It also explains why traditional religious belief is not an ideology in the sense in which I am using the term, for unlike ideology, it explicitly recognizes the limitations of earthly existence, what we can expect of it, and what we can do by our own unaided efforts.

For example, a recent column in the Guardian, by the environmental campaigner George Monbiot, carried the headline the planet is now so vandalised that only total energy renewal can save us. Monbiot, it is true, does not offer us heaven on earth if we follow his prescriptions; only the bare -- and by no means certain, for "we might have left it too late" -- avoidance of total biological annihilation. But behind Monbiot's urgency, even hysteria, one senses a deep lust for power. He cannot really believe what he says, for starters. "Do we want to be remembered," he asks rhetorically, "as the generation that saved the banks but let the biosphere collapse?" If it is really true that we must either have "total energy renewal" or die, however, we cannot be remembered as the generation that let the biosphere collapse, for if we let it collapse, ex hypothesi no one will be around to remember us. This reminds me of patients I used to see who would threaten suicide, in the clear expectation of a long life ahead, unless someone did what they wanted. And though Monbiot says that it is uncertain that anything we do now will make any difference, he nevertheless proposes that every human being on the earth follow his prescriptions.

The environmentalist ideology threatens to make serious inroads into the rule of law in Britain. This past September, six environmentalists were acquitted of having caused $50,000 worth of damage to a power station -- not because they did not do it but because four witnesses, including a Greenlander, testified to the reality of global warming.

One recalls the disastrous 1878 jury acquittal in St. Petersburg of Vera Zasulich for the attempted assassination of General Trepov, on the grounds of the supposed purity of her motives. The acquittal destroyed all hope of establishing the rule of law in Russia and ushered in an age of terrorism that led directly to one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Theodore Dalrymple. "The Persistence of Ideology." City Journal (Winter, 2009).

City Journal is published by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

THE AUTHOR

Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He writes a column for the London Spectator, contributes frequently to the Daily Telegraph, is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. He lives in France and is the author of Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 1991- 2009 City Journal




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