In (partial) defence of ideology

This article was first published on Labour Vision.

Many images from the excellent exhibitions staged this year to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution have stayed with me.

One, tucked away in a corner of the Royal Academy, was an image of Lenin, a portrait of a ferocious will and intellect focused to a laser point: revolution – the uprooting of an old order to make way for the utterly new. Here the Bolshevik leader appears as the very archetype of the ’ideologue’, the one who has seen the truth, a truth that must be realised for the sake of the good of all, even if others cannot yet see it for themselves.

It was only during his dying days, as a solicitous Stalin sat by his deathbed, that Lenin realised that the overbearing bureaucratic apparatus he had constructed to begin to force through the new socialist order had taken on a momentum of its own, and was to serve as a vehicle for an authoritarianism that would exceed his own.

‘Ideology’ is a word that long predates the Russian Revolution, a useful word, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy’. But when we use it today something like that gaze of Lenin comes to mind. It’s a word darkened by association with the reckless political experimentation of the first half of the 20th century, in the Soviet Union and beyond, conducted on the lives of millions, the ‘human material’ – as Lenin put it – used as the building blocks for the construction of utopia.

The word still appears frequently in works of political theory, as a technical term with precise applications, but it has dropped out of mainstream political discourse, used now only to insult. Our political opponents are ‘driven’ or ‘blinded’ by ‘ideology’, whereas we are guided by ‘principles’, ‘aspirations’ and ‘values’. We may have ‘visions’, and even ‘ideals’, but – unlike them – we don’t indulge in ‘ideologies’.

And yet, to draw on the OED definition, systems of ‘ideas and ideals’ that form ‘the basis of economic or political theory and policy’ have not gone away. How could they? They are the very stuff of politics, the medium through which we negotiate how to organise our societies. When we speak we use language. When we strike a piano keyboard we use notes. When we discuss politics our debates revolve around ideologies. It’s a word that may be sullied by association, but ‘ideology’ is the most accurate term we have for describing the complex of visions, dreams, hopes, ideas and hard analysis that make up a worldview, the set of principles on which political programmes are built.

Beautiful abstractions

An ideology is a thought world with a logical pattern. A coherent system. But it’s a system with a mysterious, nebulous core: a set of dreams, visions of how life might be otherwise, how the world might be transformed.

For some the vision is a global marketplace in which all have the opportunity to produce goods and services for others in return for due monetary reward. For others it is a co-operative society in which the market is a means rather than end, one mechanism amongst others for the realisation of the good society. For others it is a light, flexible communal state, a confederation of self-sustaining communities governed by principles of direct democracy. For others it is a post-capitalist society in which a new age of leisure is facilitated by the automation of logistical processes and systems of production.

Ideas are necessary to move those visions beyond the realm of imagination. As proposals for the political, economic, legal and technological frameworks and innovations necessary to make them possible begin to accumulate, a viable political prospectus begins to form. Complementary ideas cluster round a vision, like electrons orbiting a nucleus: robust ideological structures are formed, constellations by which political movements orientate themselves, sets of criteria for the development of a coherent programmes.

Ideologies are compact. You can carry them around in a book, or your phone. Their precision and consistency often gives them intense intellectual and aesthetic appeal, something of the numinous ambience of great literature or sacred scripture. The Republic, The Prince, the Constitution of the United States, The Wealth of Nations, Reflections on the Revolution in France, The Communist Manifesto, On Liberty, The Road to Serfdom, The Future of Socialism: these and other classics can be adopted not only as designs for political platforms but for life itself.

And it’s that capacity to compel through sheer force of argument, literary verve and depth of insight that can make a powerful ideology so dangerous. Here is everything, it might seem, necessary for political salvation, not just mine, but yours too. As Lenin once put it: ‘The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression.’

But no ideology can be omnipotent. The world is too big. There are too many people, with too many different dreams. An ideology can only ever represent one perspective on the good society, and there are many perspectives to take. Political philosophy, from the start, has been bedevilled by the illusion that there is an ideal form of life, the One True Path that transcends all others, capable of discovery through pure, sustained reflection by honest truth-seekers.

For the 20th century philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who witnessed the Russian Revolution as a St Petersburg schoolboy, the belief that The Way can be discerned through the disciplined application of reason is an ancient error, going back – at least – to the Socratic conception of The Good, an error that was amplified by the most evangelical forms of Enlightenment rationality. One of Berlin’s many warnings against excessive political rationalism highlights the role Enlightenment treatises such as The Social Contract played in seeding the soil in which the authoritarian ideologies of the 20th century grew:

Rousseau formulates the basic proposition of Communism, Fascism and all other totalitarian orders, namely that if one is sure that one has the correct solution to the questions ‘How should men live?’ and ‘How should society be organised?’ one can, in the name of reason, impose it ruthlessly on others, since if they are rational they will agree freely; if they do not agree, they are not rational. This denies that different ideals of life, not necessarily altogether reconcilable with each other, are equally valid and equally worthy.

Another memorable passage, in the Memoirs of lifelong socialist and one-time Bolshevik Victor Serge identifies excessive rationality as the source of Lenin’s authoritarianism:

Bolshevik thinking is grounded in the possession of the truth. The Party is the repository of the truth, and any form of thinking that differs from it is a dangerous or reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance. The absolute conviction of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity – and, at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial.

Ideologies, then, must incorporate a sense of their own provisionality. The societies they envisage must make space for those with another set of ideals. The constellation of ideas that make up an ideology must include a concept of limit, a commitment to restrict the extent to which the ideology can be imposed on others.

If they share this commitment to liberty ideologies can co-exist, and clash, sharply. If we can think of ideologies as distinct atomic structures then we might say that the ideal of liberty is the point at which they intersect and interlock to form a larger, molecular structure, the complex of distinct but mutually respectful belief systems that constitutes a mature political system, a structure sufficiently flexible to accommodate difference.

Ideology resurfaces

A sustainable ideology, then, must make room for competitors. But not too much room. If we don’t defend and develop our ideology, others will assert theirs.

To summarise crudely (because the story has been told many times) two great ideological battles were fought in British politics during the 20th century. The first was won by the left. During the Great Depression, and through World War Two, a social democratic ideology gained ascendancy, committing governments of both left and right to robust public services, a comprehensive welfare system and an expansive economic policy prioritising full employment. The second, fought during the 1970s, was won by the right. Worker power was corroded through the curbing of the unions, welfare cuts, and economic policies that prioritised the control of inflation over jobs, and the public sector subjected to an aggressive privatisation programme. The Conservative administrations of the post-war years and the Labour governments of the 90s and 00s both introduced significant reforms inspired by their own traditions, but worked within economic and political parameters that had been set by the landmark governments of Attlee and Thatcher respectively.

Today, though the word retains its stigma, ideology has moved into the open again as much of the world struggles to transcend the neoliberal order that was shaken to its core by the financial crisis. Parties and electorates thrash around for alternatives, an ongoing turbulence that has generated a relentless wave of political shocks, including the rise of movements such as the Tea Party, Occupy and Syriza, the Corbyn and Sanders phenomenons, convulsive referendums over Scottish independence and Brexit, and, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

The ideological factions that constitute Britain’s major political parties are battling shamelessly for supremacy. Economic liberals, social conservatives and English nationalists fight for control over the Conservative Party. Labour, notwithstanding the partial truce that has taken hold since the party’s unexpectedly strong election showing, remains riven by conflict between communitarian, technocratic and socialist elements. Momentum, in more than one sense, may be with the party’s left, but even the leadership is trying to find its way, as a set of influential figures inspired by the principles of the 1960s New Left seeks to move the party beyond the classic big state social democracy that informed the 2017 election manifesto.

Both parties are enmeshed in straightforward, unabashed ideological battles, seeking to settle on sets of principles capable of serving as definitive reference points for the future. And now, more than ever, both parties are uncomfortable places for those who suppose that political debate has ever been anything other than a clash of ideologies. Ideology is the cutting edge that makes political transformation possible. If we don’t develop our own vision of how the world might be we will have to be content to view it through the eyes of those who have developed theirs.