The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 25, 2017

Alien Powers: Or a Pure Theory of Ideology
Kenneth Minogue - 10/10/08

The following is an excerpt from Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology by Kenneth Minogue (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008), 400 pages, $18.

“Have I really been in a battle?” wondered Stendhal’s hero after many hours blundering around the field of Waterloo, and many people today share a similar perplexity. Like Stendhal’s hero, they eat and drink and sustain the business of life, but the meaning of it all depends upon their conviction of contributing to the liberation of workers, women, the colonized, or other varieties of the oppressed. Like Fabrizio del Dongo, they find a regiment and tag along—the Hussars against Patriarchy, the Dragoon Guards of the Proletariat, and so on. Quite where the real battle lies is hotly disputed, but its significance is agreed to be a final end to oppression.

For these are people who believe that the term “oppression” is not merely a useful component of our rhetoric of grievances, but reveals the systematic character of how we live. As a typical formulation has it, plucked at random from a vast literature, “So long as some groups in society dominate others, the problem of conflict between persons and groups will remain.”[1] Or again: “Only a planet freed from class division and imperial exploitation, in which liberty and equality were common international realities, could be a peaceful environment for the human race.”[2] The lived texture of an ideological life, then, is to be found in the endeavors of millions to improve the world. There can be no doubt that this experience has been central to the last century and more.

My concern, however, is not with this lived experience but with what I identify as its central idea. The idea is so abstract that it is less a doctrine than a machine for generating doctrines, and its simplest formulation is that all evils are caused by an oppressive system. One of its more important corollaries is that truth is a weapon. This is the pure theory of ideology, and my aim is to explore its logical and rhetorical character.

Ideology is difficult to study because its actuality is a variety of different roles, and they are not easily disentangled. Like sand at a picnic, it gets in everything. As a doctrine about the systematic basis of the world’s evils, it has a logic of its own, a logic so powerful as to generate a mass of theories of the human world which now have an established place in university studies. Yet it has always taken an ambiguous attitude towards the academic world. It is also an inspirational message calling upon people to take up the struggle for liberation. As such, it has a rhetoric of its own. Historians and political scientists study specific ideologies. More generally, ideology is the propensity to construct structural explanations of the human world, and is thus a kind of free creative play of the intellect probing the world. An uneducated black convict in the United States [3] is no less likely to construct an ideological explanation of his world than a British historian seeking to dramatize the dangers of competition in weapons of destruction. [4] At a trivial level, ideology may be seen in temporary verbal habits, such as talk of “critiques” and “problematic,” or affectations like the use of intimate abbreviations of Christian names in public life.

Ideology shares all the opportunism of any political use of language. Its thread of argument is quite capable of slithering from one connotation to another, leaving a trail of mangled denotations in its wake. Sometimes the twists and turns of theory and the accidents of history leave words facing in every direction, and the very term “ideology” itself is a well-known example of this process. Coined during the French Revolution to describe a long-standing project of cognitive hygiene, [5] it soon degenerated into a term of abuse meaning precisely what that project was designed to remedy. [6] In this abusive form, it was taken up by Marx and Engels in the 1840s as a term for denigrating the competing thoughts of their fellow intellectuals. Marx the scientific student of society criticized as ideology the mystificatory universalism he believed himself to have found in the ruling ideas of the time, but also believed that his science expressed the rising consciousness of the working class. Generalizing from this point, revolutionaries by the end of the century were using the word “ideology” to mean any elaborated class point of view, all such viewpoints being partial and distorted except for that of the rising revolutionary class. On this basis, one might distinguish bourgeois and proletarian ideology. At this point in the word’s adventures, Marxism, as the science of society, might be found criticizing science, especially empirical social science and bourgeois economics, as the distorted thought of the bourgeoisie. In these contradictions, ideology meant both sub-scientific and super-scientific thought. In its ultimate vulgarization, “ideology” came to be a rather pretentious word for any doctrine.

Political scientists use the word to describe any of the more evolved bodies of political doctrine in which theory is combined with a project of political action. It thus refers to isms. [7] I shall use it more narrowly, to denote any doctrine which presents the hidden and saving truth about the evils of the world in the form of social analysis. It is a feature of all such doctrines to incorporate a general theory of the mistakes of everyone else. Confusingly, these mistakes are referred to as “ideology,” and it is this body of thought which has to some extent freed itself from the project of liberation to become the sociology of knowledge. It deals with the social conditions of ideas, and, especially since the work of Karl Mannheim, [8] has usually detached itself from the (self-refuting) doctrine that all thought is socially distorted in order to study the general connections between theories and the culture in which they appear. My original intention was to deal with ideology in both the political and the sociological senses, but in the event, I have been forced to concentrate upon theories of liberation, and leave the higher sociology of thought to another occasion.

The search for a pure theory of ideology must focus upon a simple structure of propositions which are explanatory to the extent that actual ideological beliefs derive from them. In the real world of discussion and controversy, ideology merges into every other kind of intellectuality. Different clusters of assumptions may be detected, some internally contradictory, and some on the very borderlines between ideology and other endeavors. Thus the voluntarist assumptions of the revolutionary contradict the determinist assumptions of the theoretician, while structural explanations of social phenomena are to be found in academic social science no less than in ideology itself. What the pure model contains must be a matter of judgment; the test is what the model reveals. Sometimes questions in this field may be posed in terms of a kind of ideological table of elements. Fascism, for example, may be denied a fundamental character when it is characterized in terms of the formula: socialism + nationalism. [9] Alternatively, it may be understood in terms of historical sociology as a developmental dictatorship appropriate, in a competitive world, for backward states, a view which leads to the implication that much of the socialism of the Third World, including Maoism, is a fascism concealing its real character.[10] In attempting to understand ideologies, then, we may concentrate upon a variety of the many features they exhibit: the logic of a doctrine, the sociology of leadership and support, the chosen rhetoric, the place in a specific culture, and so on. Of the many such characteristics, the logic of the doctrine has been shown by the experience of our century to be the feature which we ignore at our peril. Genuine ideologists are intensely theoretical, a feature which is paradoxical in view of the ideological insistence upon the merely derivative status of ideas. But then, ideologies are, of all intellectual creations, the most riddled with paradox and deception.

Even as an interlocking set of ideas, ideology is complex, largely because it borders upon and frequently invades all the intellectual fields of modern self-understanding. This has provoked a vast and impressive literature whose preoccupations frequently intersect with mine: a literature concerned with historicism, gnosticism, true believers, open and closed societies, historical inevitability, totalitarianism, not to mention discussion of specific ideologies.[11] None of these characterizations is quite identical with ideology, though all cast light upon it. Like most contemporary ideological writers themselves, I have found in Marxism the paradigm of ideology itself, and within Marxism, its theoretical preoccupation with the nature of society rather than its concern with the technology of revolution. Above all, the early writings of Marx and Engels convey most vividly the excitement of discovering the main ideas. For the most remarkable thing about ideology is the attempt to generate liberation out of a pure theory of social change. Marxism is so much the most sophisticated and the most developed of ideologies that it naturally commands the most attention. It would, indeed, have made a tidier pattern if I had concentrated upon Marxism alone. But ideology has for the last century and more been a kind of theoretical art-form by which people can develop and extend the unprecedented modern passion for self-understanding: the sociological equivalent of morbid introspection. Anyone today can do for any group wishing to assert itself what Marx and Engels so creatively did for industrial workers in the middle of the nineteenth century. By now there are well-tried intellectual acrobatics which can be performed within this tradition, as when an academic philosopher writes: “ . . . I now see Marxism as an integral part of the very domination it purports, but fails, critically, to comprehend.”[12] Ideology is thus a lopsided subject of enquiry, in which the specification is the abstract matter of ideology, but the instantiation is disproportionately Marxist. This gives an untidy impression, but it does serve to reveal the way in which the terminology and repertoire of ideological thinking have come to be dominated by one version of the idea.

Ideology is a philosophical type of allegiance purporting to transcend the mere particularities of family, religion, or native hearth, and its essence lies in struggle. The world is a battlefield, in which there are two enemies. One is the oppressor, the other consists of fellow ideologists who have generally mistaken the conditions of liberation. Communists, anarchists, fascists, and nationalists battled for allegiance throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. Within communism, as within all other ideologies, competing opinions—revisionist and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Stalinist, to mention only the larger battalions—have battled it out, and violent conflict on tactics can be traced down to the lowest levels. Yet for all their differences, ideologists can be specified in terms of a shared hostility to modernity: to liberalism in politics, individualism in moral practice, and the market in economics. All such practices represent the triumph of the anarchic particularism which is, in ideological terms, the soil of oppression. Left to themselves, the people of the actual world we live in will generate, ideologists all believe, nothing but structures of domination.

This basic commitment often presents serious problems to actual people who have both an ideological view of the world, and also a genuine commitment to liberal values. What view ought they to take of the many ideological regimes which have achieved collectivism at fearful cost in freedom and in human life? The solution is often to deplore what are called the “mistakes” or “excesses” of such regimes, while retaining a basic allegiance to collectivism. To understand this terminology requires that we should attend to both the logic and the rhetoric of what is at issue. Since ideology is the belief that everything that happens is explicable in terms of the relevant structure, mistakes and excesses are logically impossible. A mistake cannot be a mere mistake; it must be explicable in terms of some previously unconsidered feature of the structure. Rhetorically, however, mistakes and excesses are merely peripheral phenomena, which can be admitted without damage to the basic allegiance. The ideological term “capitalism,” which now has a universal currency, describes in strict usage an inherited condition of things in which humanity has been shattered into millions of disconnected fragments whose ant-like scurryings around society have created the structure of oppression from which we suffer. The first step in awakening from this nightmare must be to concentrate power into the hands of the liberating class. Ideologists have for most of the twentieth century believed that this first step has actually been taken in the Soviet Union and other ideological societies. This step has been, in ideological terms, of world-historical significance, while other criteria such as moral principle, or the happiness and prosperity of the relevant populations, are parochial concerns. They are necessarily on a lower level, and could only affect ideological allegiance if they were construed as evidence that such societies had not in fact taken that first giant step. Such an option is theoretically available to ideologists, and has been taken by some, but the issue for the moment remains a matter of intense dispute.

Even so brief a characterization of ideology suffices to show that the academic enquirer walks straight into a minefield. In particular, given that there is a cosmic battle between progress and reaction, how is it possible for an academic student, no doubt himself equipped with a variety of passions and loyalties, to study the formal character of the battle without presenting a version of things which helps one side or the other. Ideology is a form of theoretical conscription: everyone, by virtue of class, sex, race, or nation, is smartly uniformed and assigned to one side or the other. In this battle, there are no civilians like Pierre at Borodino wandering over the field and tolerated by the combatants. Ideology thus rejects any claim to neutrality as an imposture, for we are all involved, and the very categories of academic enquiry, with their emphasis on studying what is actually there, serve to obscure the contradictions which (so it is argued) alone give us the clue to the reality.

At the lowest level, the argument that the student of ideology must himself be an ideologist is merely the squawking of a mother hen protecting her chicks. It doesn’t, after all, matter what the academic student is up to; it only matters whether what he says is true, and illuminating. The academic study of hot topics is risky but not always unprofitable, and the academic practice of seeking purely to understand (caricatured as being a claim to neutrality) depends not upon purity of motives, but upon a formal process of enquiry in terms of the progressive clarification of questions and the accumulation of findings. The virtue, such as it is, lies in the dialogue, not in the speaker. At a more fundamental level, the reason why ideologists invoke the defense of unavoidable partisanship against criticism is that an ideology is not just a body of propositions but the statement of a collective project and the defense of a whole way of life; and it is indeed true that there cannot be a neutral judgment between ways of life, though there are many interesting things that can be said. At this level, we encounter a nest of problems with which we shall later be concerned.

My aim has been to present a critical map of the terrain, where “critical” means an attention to incoherence, tension, and contradiction, an attention, that is to say, to what I take to be the real connections of ideas. Here again, there is an ideological defense in depth, symbolized by the daring foray in which the very epithet “critical” has been appropriated as an ideological shibboleth and domesticated to mean any enquiry into social reality which, by probing the things technically called “contradictions,” reveals it as an oppressive structure. The ideologist thus becomes critical ex officio. Those of us striving to join this desirable regiment by our own exertions thus find that we are rejected on the ground that to criticize those already known to be critical is to serve the interests of the status quo. The critic of criticism must be an apologist. Criticism, yoked to a fixed set of conclusions, turns into an orthodoxy.

My argument, then, is an exploration of the hypothesis that there is a pure theory of ideology, and while from one point of view it is a critique, from another it is a do-it-yourself ideology kit. It begins with some suggestions about how ideology was generated from eighteenth-century social theory. The long central section is an attempt to characterize ideologies as forms of understanding. The last section develops the view that, although ideology must take on political trappings in order to transform the world, its real character is entirely antithetical to the practice of politics. Ideology is to reality, I suggest, as (in Tolstoy’s opinion) the reports of battles are to the concrete experience of individuals in the field. In ideological moods, we think we see in social and political life those clear lines from the history books depicting the battle order of the antagonists in massed array. They have neat, clear names like bourgeois and proletarian, colonialist and national, city-dweller and producer, in a word, oppressor and oppressed. The actual reality, however, is messy. Things change all the time, and it becomes impossible to keep any clear and distinct identities in focus. Confronting the arguments of ideology, we are forced to transform the Stendhalian question: Is it really a battle that we are in?


  1. Milton Fisk, Ethcs and Society: A Marxist Interpretation of Value (Brighton: Harvester, 1980), 4.
  2. From the Foreword of Exterminism and the Cold War, edited by New Left Review (London: Verso, 1982), vii.
  3. Consider for example Eldridge Cleaver’s “primaeval mitosis” in Soul on Ice (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), 125.
  4. Thus E. P. Thompson creates the category of “exterminism” in Exterminism and the Cold War, op. cit.
  5. I have discussed the background of this idea in “Bacon and Locke: On Ideology as Mental Hygiene” in Anthony Parel (ed.), Ideology, Philosophy and Politics (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1981). [Note abbreviated.]
  6. See Raymond Williams, Key Words (London: Fontana, 1976), 128.
  7. See Harro Höpfl, “Isms,” British Journal of Political Science, 13, 1983, 1.
  8. See Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960). Mannheim himself, in a heroic attempt to make an honest concept of ideology, further muddied the waters by distinguishing ideology from utopia in terms of “congruence with reality.” Ideology is present-oriented, while utopia is oriented towards the future. But as Mannheim himself admits (176), “To determine concretely . . . what in a given case is ideological and what utopian is extremely difficult.”
  9. See, for example, the discussion of “Fascist Ideology” by Zeev Sternhell, in Walter Laqueur (ed.), Fascism: A Reader’s Guide (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), 333.
  10. A. James Gregor, The Ideology of Fascism: The Rationale of Totalitarianism (New York, 1969).
  11. The books of enduring importance on these themes include Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966); Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability (Oxford University Press, 1954); Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd edn (London, 1961); Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics and Order in History, four volumes (Louisiana University Press, 1956 etc.). [Note abbreviated.]
  12. I. D. Balbus, Marxism and Domination (Princeton University Press, 1982), xi.
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