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The Return of Ideology

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

When the Chicago Black Lives Matter account (@BLMChi) shared a post on X celebrating the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, many on the Left reacted in shock. What did protesting police violence against Black Americans have to do with cheering on the gruesome massacre of Israeli men, women, elders, and children? The connection that some progressives made between these events was that both were forms of “decolonization.” The plight of Black Americans, they claimed, was historically similar to that of Palestinians. Others countered that decolonization reduces complex histories to an overly simplistic narrative that runs about as follows: around the world, since the sixteenth century, European settler-colonialists have been oppressing indigenous peoples, who (as @BLMChi later posted) “will do what they must to live free.” Clearly, it is a powerful narrative, as it led its supporters to overlook the murder of over a thousand Israelis and to cheer on the “colonized” liberators instead.

Another word that has featured prominently in these discussions is “ideology.” Some sixty years ago, the sociologist Daniel Bell published a book called The End of Ideology (1960), where he argued that there was no serious debate left to be had about political ideologies. Totalitarian visions, on both the left and right, had lost their appeal among reasonable people. Today, by contrast, ideologies are roaring back to life. Their return frightens those who know how this story played out in the twentieth century. If we hope to limit the appeal of ideologies, we urgently need to understand how they work.

Drawing on the rich scholarly literature on the subject, we may define ideology as a pathological, modern, and revolutionary narrative. It is “pathological,” both in the usual sense of abnormal or unhealthy and in the literal sense that it is a discourse (logos) that triggers powerful emotions (pathos). As a pathological narrative, ideology is resistant to many rational objections. The specific points that ideologies draw on are often true. Israel has indeed used settlers to colonize parts of the West Bank (though it dismantled Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005). Right-wing populism similarly exploits genuine economic or political grievances. The persuasiveness of ideologies, however, lies not in their arrangement of facts but in their mobilization of feelings. In this respect, we might even consider ideology as a literary genre, namely a form of melodrama rather than a philosophical discourse.

Unlike religious dogma, political propaganda, or conspiracy theories, ideologies are inherently modern. They reject the classical vision of history as repetitive or serial and insist instead on the necessity of progress. In ideological narratives, a morally compromised past must give way to a regenerated future. Where millenarian or apocalyptic narratives involve divine intervention, this change is wholly secular. Ideology provides a revolutionary script for human action. Viewed from this angle, ideologies may have more in common with other modern ways of thinking than we realize (or are comfortable with). Rooting out ideology means recognizing that we all carry its seeds.

The word “ideology” was coined during the French Revolution by intellectuals trying to make sense of and avoid what they saw as the horrific excesses of the Terror. Ideology, as they understood it, was a science that should lead us to the truth in moral and political matters. It should prevent the errors that drove the French revolutionaries to fratricidal violence. The Idéologues’s project was inspired by the doctrine of historical progress, which had recently emerged from the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (an academic dispute that surged between 1680 and 1720 in France and England). For the Moderns, what made their age greater than Antiquity was the gradual advancement of society toward reason and justice. This Modern vision received its canonical expression in the Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794).

In describing the gradual advance of reason towards a more just society, the modern doctrine of progress assumes that there is one final destination. In Hegel’s phrase, there is an end of History. More importantly, there can only be a single end. The triumph of reason results in homogeneity. Once we have prevailed over error and superstition, we should all see rationally and reach straightforward agreements about how society should be organized and administered. The modern theory of progress, in this sense, is at odds with a pluralist conception of society.

One might fairly ask whether pluralism was a value in historical or political thought until very recently. Should we criticize modern progressives for their “monism,” if no one had previously defended a pluralistic outlook? In fact, the classical vision of history already promoted a de facto pluralism. For the Ancients, history had no telos, no goal; the future was simply more of the past. This meant that the social and political conflicts that characterized the present would never disappear. The wealthy and the poor will not agree about what is just, Aristotle concluded in Politics. A balanced constitution was the only viable political solution, as it provided a compromise between feuding classes. This same logic persuaded the American founders to create one political body (the Senate) that could express the opinions of the wealthy few and another (the House of Representatives) that defended the interests of the many poor. Never did they imagine that these different outlooks would be reconciled. “In all civilized countries, the interest of a community will be divided,” James Madison argued during the Federal Convention in 1787. “There will be debtors and creditors, and an unequal possession of property, and hence arises different views and different objects in government.” Madison even turned this conflict of viewpoints into an epistemological virtue: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed,” he affirmed in Federalist Paper No. 10. For classical thinkers, pluralism may not always have been a good in and of itself, but it was inevitable.

The modern theory of progress rejects this classical acceptance of irreconcilable political differences. In its place, it envisages the eventual convergence of opinions around a single rational viewpoint. The greatest challenge to this assumption comes from the reality check that people tend not to agree on important things. This realization abruptly dawned on progressive thinkers in the early years of the French Revolution. Even among its supporters, profound differences of opinion prevailed about how to organize the new government and distribute its powers. Each side was persuaded that its opponents were not only misguided but irrational. From accusing rivals of erroneous thinking to branding them as counter-revolutionaries, there was but one small step. The modern theory of progress, which the Idéologues had hoped would put an end to revolutionary violence once and for all, had, in fact, fueled its advance.

The most contentious debates in society often concern subjects such as history, where logical analysis alone is insufficient. Who did what to whom, who is on “the right side of history,” and who is not? These are questions that can only be answered through narratives. Narratives are not antithetical to reason per se, but they operate on other levels, as well.

In a famous study, the theorist Hayden White argued that many historical narratives mirror literary genres. Tocqueville’s history of the French Revolution has a tragic dimension; Burckhardt’s history of the Renaissance is more satirical. We might add that progressive narratives, such as Condorcet’s universal history, are melodramatic. Condorcet observed that if reason only advances gradually and it takes extended periods of time for societies to improve, that is because there are obstacles to progress. Error and superstition are among the chief hurdles to overcome. But these are not simply problems that each and every one of us must surmount individually. They have their own backers and institutions, such as despotic kings or a regressive Church. Conversely, reason and justice have their own valiant defenders, most recently (and conveniently, for Condorcet) the philosophes themselves.

Melodrama is perhaps the modern genre par excellence. It appeared on stage in the aftermath of the French Revolution. This was no coincidence, the literary scholar Peter Brooks claimed: both featured “incessant struggle against enemies, without and within.” This generic constraint also defined Condorcet’s narrative of villainous zealots oppressing passive victims and thwarting the progress of truth-seeking heroes. Each actor’s position was rigidly defined. No matter what they did, victims could never turn into villains. Conversely, no matter what was done to the villains, they could never be victimized.

One of the effects of literary genres is to excite and direct our feelings toward characters and situations. Tragedies, Aristotle taught in Poetics, elicit feelings of pity and fear; comedies make us laugh with their happy resolution. Melodramas take maximum advantage of this process. We are meant to feel anger and revulsion toward the villains, pity for the victims, and joy when the hero ultimately triumphs.

But the feeling that melodrama produces most effectively and provides its generic specificity is righteousness. The satisfaction we experience in the end stems from the fact that the villains get what they deserve. We cheer for the heroes because they are on the side of justice. As Brooks put it, in melodramas, the law is “sacralized.” It becomes an object of awe and veneration, two powerful feelings.