June 2008

Tune Up Your Ideology

by Bruce A. Clark

Do you have one? You might find it useful to have one. Already have one? Is it a good one? A bad one can be worse than useless. What is ideology, anyway?

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (and hard copy dictionary):
1. visionary theorizing
2. a. a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
b. a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
c. the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program
1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.
An ideology is an organized collection of ideas. The word ideology was coined by Count Antoine Destutt de Tracy in the late 18th century to define a “science of ideas.” An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare Weltanschauung or worldview)
Encyclopædia Britannica:
a form of social or political philosophy in which practical elements are as prominent as theoretical ones. It is a system of ideas that aspires both to explain the world and to change it.

These are pretty good definitions. A lot of the ones that turned up on my web search were products of some ideology (“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’”) and useless to anyone who just wants to learn the basic concept.

What Use Is an Ideology?

A good ideology (more on “good” later) will help you understand and respond to things that happen in the world and in your life. Since creating an ideology involves doing some thinking about how the world really works, when something new comes along, it will be easier to fit it into its proper pigeon hole, because you’ve already thought about it or something like it. It will help keep you grounded.

What’s a Good Ideology?

There are a number of things involved in making a good, useful ideology. First, and most important, it needs to be personal. The only kind of ideology that will work is one that you yourself have analyzed and accepted. If you buy into someone else’s ideology, especially one of the big “isms,” you will have lost control of your ideology and disaster is imminent. That’s not to say that lot of folks cannot share the same (for all practical purposes) ideology — of course they can. But they must all individually accept it, after some thought.

The second most important criterion is that your ideology needs frequent reality checks, and is tweaked whenever the ideas don’t seem to match reality. That doesn’t mean it needs to change every time the wind blows, but when some event happens that you can’t explain, it’s time to do a little reevaluation.

The third important factor is that your ideology must be founded upon some real thinking that you have done. It’s a good excuse to read some books and to put your head back, close your eyes and cogitate. Brewing an ideology will take some time. There’s no short cut, but your efforts will be worth your while in the future.

Some Lessons from the Past

The best way to illustrate the problems of having an ideology that isn’t personal and reality checked is to consider what happened to the Left in the U.S. in the last ¾ century, especially to the Communist Party and its sympathizers. Briefly. The ideas of socialism and communism as ways to get to a more egalitarian society are old, but they were “modernized” by Karl Marx in the 19th century. Much of what has historically called the “Left” in this country is made up of people who referred to themselves as Marxists, to one degree or another. It became an ideology, and for many people, another layer was added to it after the Russian Revolution created a non-capitalist society. Many analyses were done to try to keep the ideology up with events of the day, but much of it became just a time capsule of Marx’s thinking.

Unfortunately, Marx didn’t look at things that way. I haven’t read the collected works of Marx, not even close. I don’t know how many times he might have said something similar, but I do know that he wrote a letter to a rather obscure Russian political journal named Fatherland Notes. This letter, never published in that journal, stated in the roundabout way in which people had to write to avoid the censors, that his writings were about conditions in Central Europe in the middle of that 19th century. He didn’t claim that everything he said and wrote applied in all places and at all times. It’s too bad so few people know about Marx’s feelings on this subject. If Lenin and Trotsky ever wrote something like that, I don’t know about it, but they should have, and if they had, they would have saved much trouble and heartache for a lot of people.

Most of those who followed the “communist” path were not aware for years that the USSR was in the grip of a brutal dictatorship. They still kept the ideology and recruited others to it. Their main goal was still to make a better country in the U.S., but the ideology they maintained had unknowingly turned toward protecting the bureaucratic Soviet Union. The penalty for being an unquestioning follower was visited upon the Communist Party members and sympathizers after

As the song went: “Our line’s been changed again, our line’s been changed …” People left in droves after each disillusionment. Well, one can’t become disillusioned if one isn’t “illusioned” in the first place; so much for giving your ideology frequent reality checks. There is nothing wrong with having an ideology; rather, one can’t blindly accept someone else’s ideology, no matter how good it appears at first glance.

Where To Begin

I can see one criticism forming in some readers’ minds already: not everyone will, or even can, spend the time to think things out like this; if all this is true, how can we ever organize people in the numbers necessary to make real social change? Excellent point! But that’s a main reason why Marxism/socialism/communism/etc. failed as an ideology of the U.S. Left — it was so very complicated! Most folks who accepted it at all just bought in without thinking about it too deeply, and like a house built upon sand, it collapsed just as easily. Simpler is better.

I’m not saying that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and the rest wasted their time. Not at all! I do say, however, that one can approach things much less theoretically and more concretely, in a way that it can be easily grasped and owned by real people in this country, without all of the complexity. Just as Ptolemy described the motion of celestial objects with his complicated spheres — it worked and explained things after a fashion — but Kepler did it much more simply and directly centuries later. So it can be with politics.

The world is different today. Now millions of people can participate in a discussion of how to unscrew-up the country. If it’s done thoughtfully and without acrimony, we can move forward. (Yes, this is probably wishful thinking, but if you don’t try for it, you won’t get it.)

Starting from one of those historical ideologies would be getting off on the wrong foot. Start by thinking about what you want, and never mind about what anyone tells you about some rules you have to follow. Many who call themselves socialists seem to have forgotten what brought them to that strain of thought to begin with — they wanted a world fairer to all people, not just the rich and powerful. Socialism was never the goal, it was just one possible route to the goal, one that now looks like it needs to be plowed under to help fertilize a new crop of ideas. Start with what you really want as a goal and think about the tools you already have to start building it.

What’s the Alternative?

If you don’t have an ideology, one will be attributed to you, whether you like it or not. The television and radio commentators, the survey creators and the newspaper editorial writers will all assume that you are the “silent majority” and that you basically agree with the status quo. Your opinion, or lack of one, will be manipulated into whatever some sly fox wants it to be. A little over a century ago, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was agitating for a U.S. war with Spain. He sent a photographer to the “front” of the not-yet-existent war and told him “You supply the pictures, and I’ll supply the war” and it happened just that way. You will be used as part of a mob, maneuvered into doing someone’s bidding whenever a few key phrases are thrown your way. Wars and support for them have been created in similar manners much more recently than 1898!

If you haven’t put the thinking time into developing your ideology, it will be hard to break out of the “silent majority” role. How can you join with others with whom you agree and act in an influential way if you don’t have a broad view of what you’d like to see happening in the world? With whom will you join? Spur-of-the-moment, knee-jerk reactions to things don’t add up to much in the long term, but people acting in a unified way adds up to power and change. First things first; put on your thinking cap.