The Return of Ideology

The Return of Ideology

The temptations of ideological thinking were not banished to the twentieth century.

Where fictional melodramas can appear excessively sentimental, historical melodramas are potent emotional stimulants. The Idéologues themselves mostly focused on philosophy. But the name they coined aptly describes the kind of historical narrative that triggers overwhelming feelings of righteousness and divvies up the world into heroes, victims, and villains. Hoping to devise a science (logos) based entirely on reason, the Idéologues gave their name to a style of argument that overwhelms the mind with pathos

Ideological narratives are not simply a form of passive entertainment. Their ultimate objective is action. They start in medias res: now is the time to act. Now is the time to bring about or block a future condition. Now is the time when the historical melodrama is reaching its climax. Ideologies do not simply illuminate the present. They issue a call to arms (often literally). 

It is no coincidence, then, that ideology emerged in the context of the first modern revolution, the French. The Americans had still regarded “revolution” as something to be avoided: witness their terror at Shays’s rebellion. They did not describe their own struggle for independence as a revolution until quite late, and only then, it was thanks to the parallel with the British Glorious Revolution of 1688. Their hesitation reflected the classical phobia of revolutions, immortalized by Thucydides’s account of the stasis in Corcyra. If history is not headed toward a final destination, then revolutions are merely destructive events. “The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same,” concluded Thucydides. 

But in 1789, there was a new idea of revolution in the air. It had been fashioned by the French philosophes and grew out of the modern doctrine of progress. Social improvement was not linear, they noted. A jolt was needed to level up on the historical ladder. Revolution now appeared as the handmaiden of progress. Where classical thinkers had lamented revolution as the source of all social problems, modern thinkers celebrated it as their solution. 

Ideology crystallizes this modern idea of revolution. Since the awaited future must be reasonable and just, there can only be one correct path forward. Ideology narrates this path, from the unjust past through the revolutionary present to the perfect future. Modern revolutionaries require an ideology, and ideologies are always revolutionary. They are also exclusive: “There can be no solution of the social problem but mine,” proclaimed the ideologue in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s satire of revolutionary politics, The Possessed (1871–72). “Nothing can take the place of the system set forth in my book, and there is no other way out of it; no one can invent anything else.” The anti-pluralism of modern progressives leads them to reduce all social and political issues to a single factor. When Marx and Engels asserted, at the start of the Communist Manifesto, that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” they captured the essence of ideology. There is one core problem that has plagued us in the past and whose present resolution will lead us to a happy future. This is the template of all ideologies: simply replace “class struggles” with “Jews,” “colonizers,” “elites,” “capitalism,” “immigrants,” or any other perceived villain, and the pathology spreads in new directions. 

The only ideologies that aren’t revolutionary are those that are counter-revolutionary. In this model, the values assigned to all elements in the narrative are flipped. Heroes become villains and villains, heroes, while the vanishing past becomes a victim to be saved from an awful future. Counter-revolutionary ideologies may be more likely to weave in religious motifs, but this does not make them traditional. They are just as modern as their revolutionary twin. 

As ideologies come roaring back to life, it is no surprise that “revolution” is also experiencing a resurgence. As last century’s revolutions fade from our cultural memory, the modern faith in revolutionary change has been recharged. This time around, revolution is proving as attractive to the political far-right as to the far-left. Right-wing activists no longer gather under the banner of counter-revolution but now openly promote their own revolutionary causes.

What is perhaps most instructive about recognizing the basic template and generic quality of ideologies is that it forces us to acknowledge how easy it is for anyone to succumb to such narratives. Ideologies are not conspiracy theories spun from the cloth of total fabrications. Class struggles did play a major role in Western history: Aristotle observed as much more than two thousand years ago. The difference lies in attributing all explanatory power to a single cause. That is the true pathology at the heart of ideology. It is unsurprising, in this regard, that some of the worst ideological offenders are academics. This may be an occupational hazard: in general, a good scholarly argument cuts through the noise and smoke to identify the root causes of a problem. Academics are also attracted to feelings of righteousness, which convey a strong sense of purpose. “Marxism is the opium of intellectuals,” Raymond Aron once quipped. This attraction is not limited to the left: the high ranks of the Nazi party bristled with PhDs. 

Nor is ideological thinking limited to explicitly political issues. Promoters of technological solutionism reject political action but are no less ideological in their belief that “to save everything,” we need only “click here” (to quote the title of Evgeny Morozov’s incisive book). Environmental groups veer into ideology when they throw paint on classical artwork as a form of protest. 

Ideology is an appealing temptation, and none of us are immune to its allure. But this does not mean that everything is ideology, as the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has suggested. We can have strong political convictions and opinions without being ideological. The challenge is not to force all events into a single narrative pushed forward by a single cause. One can decry Hamas’s murder of Israelis while also being appalled by the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. There are few total villains or total victims in the world. 

To prevent ideological thinking, we need to recognize that our preferred opinions are not the only acceptable ones. A formal antidote to ideology can be found in liberalism, understood in its philosophical sense. As the philosopher Will Kymlicka noted, liberalism “allows people to choose a conception of the good life, and then allows them to reconsider that decision, and adopt a new and hopefully better plan of life.” It is, by definition, pluralistic. 

The most important work we can do to prevent the development and spread of ideologies is to cultivate a pluralistic mindset. We can engage in this work individually, but it is also a task that schools and universities must take on themselves. To cultivate a pluralistic mindset, we could do worse than to take Madison’s observation to heart. Reason is fallible; different opinions do exist, and no single narrative has a monopoly on the truth.

This essay is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, The Revolution Next Time (Princeton University Press).

Dan Edelstein is William H. Bonsall Professor of French ar Stanford University.