Lewis S. Feuer, "Beyond Ideology"

Full citation here.

A man without an ideology is today as rare as a man without a country, and certainly as unrespectable. Modern history is a history of warring creeds, of passionate faiths, and the man without an ideology is bannerless in an age when thinking is enlisted in battalions.

But the upshot of our analysis is that free thought and action are also free from ideology. What are ideologies? They are indeed works of presumption. An ideology projects wish-fulfillments where knowledge is unavailable; it denies those realities whose existence it would repress, it enhances into ultimates what it prizes. An ideology is a world-system based on one s political and social feelings, an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to impose one's political will upon the nature of the universe. It entangles emotions, actions, and ideas into one amalgam, so that one does not know where the emotion ends and the idea begins; it regards every idea as a plan for action, and every idea as the projection of some interest. The Universe is handed a card of membership in a political party or affiliation to a religious sect; it is declared pluralistic or democratic, dialectical, or organismic.

An age of ideology may finally make men restless with an aspiration for intellectual freedom. They perceive that they have defied words and formulas. Emotions of good will, suppressed longings for friendliness, work havoc with the rigidities of ideology.

The age of religious wars was followed by an age of skepticism. The rumor spread through France that there was a king to whom men's religions didn't matter; the skeptic Montaigne was heard asking other men as he asked of himself: "What do I know?" and avowing to an "ignorance, strong and noble, which yields nothing to knowledge in honor and courage--an ignorance which requires as much knowledge to attain as knowledge does itself." The age of fanaticism in England was followed by the age of David Hume. "Enthusiasms" were distrusted, men became modest in their pretensions, and forebore from claims of knowing the universe. With their recognition of their status as men, they became reluctant to immolate themselves upon man-made creeds which were presented as divine-given truths. Men, to act as men, would acknowledge their character, their mixture of ignorance and knowledge.

The adherent to ideology believes that the making of history is its handmaiden. He demands for himself and his followers the assurance that "history is on our side." Ideology makes men believe that they are acting with the blessing, with the sanction of the Total Universe. Cromwell believed he was the servant of the Lord, and executant of His Will upon earth. The Nazi leader, Hitler, saw his political party as fortified by a Weltanschauung, therein was its superiority to liberalism, the weapon which would enable it to battle Marxist ideology on equal terms; ideology brought the assurance that the genocide of the Jews was "the Lord's work." The communist has the guarantee of ideology that he is of the vanguard of the World Dialectic. All the modes of ideology have a common source of emotional satisfaction. They confer a father's blessing, the approval of a superego, when one is feeling most insecure. The ideological fanatic is repressing tremendous segments of his personality; he represses doubts and fears, he inhibits his emotions of good will, he drives his affections along paths approved by party authority. Emotions of friendship in his life dissolve into nothingness, in his actions he no longer has the sense of freedom. The follower of ideology is always ambivalent toward his church or party, hating it for the way it warps his life, so that he no longer reacts as himself, freshly and spontaneously, but always as the representative, a moment, of historical forces. Cruelty as a political value is the counterpart of an extreme personal repression, and it constructs its own new conscience; the intensified motive for cruelty is internalized as the mandate of the historical superego. Ideology gives to the cruelty-dominated man the approval of a cosmic conscience; organized cruelty thus has its unchallengeable certitude of world-historical process. Ideology thus helps provide the internal energy for the repression of humane impulses and external energy for aggression against others. Ideology is the instrument whereby men repress their human responses, and shape their behavior to a political mandate.

Liberal civilization begins when the age of ideology is over. On whose side, if anyone's history is, no one can pretend to know. No one can say that history is on our side, and no one can enroll the Universe as a Whole into any political party. We can act to realize as far as we may our own, human values, but we do so without the knowledge that our embodiments and realizations are elected to withstand all time. The age of religious wars was followed by a time in which cosmopolitanism and the rational spirit were admired of men. There was an aspiration to rise above tribalism and national ethnocentrism to be a "citizen of the world." Those hopes of the eighteenth century foundered, but perhaps they will be renewed. When ideologies recede, humanity may discover for itself a common language and common values. When ideologies recede, it will be the ebb tide of human hatreds, and the energies of men, from conflict and suppression, will know new horizons of happiness and achievement.

And, suppose it were true that human hopes will be wrecked, that the dreams of radical reform will never live but on paper, suppose it were true that humankind lacks the resources for self-liberation. Would wisdom then dictate that we should retreat into ourselves? Is social action wise only when it has the warrant of success? Is there a basic imperative that one be always on the winning side?

There is a passage in Silone's great novel, The Seed Beneath the Snow, when Pietro Spina, wandering revolutionary, hiding in a hut with a donkey and a halfwit, is queried by a peasant friend:

"Pietro, don't you think that human society will always be ruled by some sort of oligarchy; that there will always be unfairness and oppression?"

"No, I don't believe so, Severi. And even so, what does it matter? We shall always be on the side of the poor."

Men's values in the end need make no obeisance to power and success. If the universe finally defeats human aspirations, it still remains true that the effort to realize them brings life to its fullest and most intense liberation. William James once spoke of "the potential social self" which lives as an ideal in human action: ". . . it may be represented as barely possible. I may not hope for its realization during my lifetime. . . . Yet still the emotion that beckons me on is indubitably the pursuit of an ideal social self. . . ." ' This "ideal social self" consists of the affectional impulses of men, which have survived their dark oppressive surroundings, and which are looking for some way to the light of knowledge and human friendship. When social groups are dominated by hatred, when actual societies and persons have abandoned humane values, one's social feelings are directed toward man as he might be, a kingdom not of the present, but a kingdom which might be of this world. And if this hope founders, it will have given to life those moments which were free of anger and hatred, the moments which brought the fullness of joy which only love can bring.


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:31 EDT