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Son of Ideology

The Concept of Ideology and Other Essays

by George Lichtheim
Random House, 327 pp., $5.95

Mr. George Lichtheim’s brilliant new book cannot be read in isolation from his three earlier works, Marxism, Marxism in Modern France, and Europe and America. Taken together these four constitute what is arguably the most important contribution to political thinking in Britain or America in the last decades. Those professional political scientists who have so conscientiously cultivated the virtues of industriousness in the collection of data and of scrupulosity in the refinement of their methodology ought to be reminded by Lichtheim’s books that the justification of these virtues can only be that they enable the social scientist to elaborate theories and insights superior to those sprung from the plain historical and analytical intelligence of traditional political philosophy—something they have notably failed to do so far. It is Lichtheim’s achievement to have defined the tradition in contemporary terms.

Lichtheim’s central concern in this collection of essays is with the interplay between theories and practices in the transition from classical capitalist society to modern industrial society. As this transition has taken place, political theories and points of view have been continuously transformed from a means of understanding social reality into ideological concealments of the underlying facts. The eighteenth century’s appeal to the state of nature yielded insights which illuminated the false claims of the prerevolutionary status quo. These insights were transformed, however, into that liberalism which was the official and justificatory self-image of the nineteenth-century bourgeois state, as Lichtheim demonstrates in the title essay of his new book. Marxism exposed the untruth of liberalism by laying bare the class relations of bourgeois society; but it too was transformed into an official self-image both in the labor movement and in the Communist parties and states.

Thus in Lichtheim’s view it is now too late to be liberals and too late to be Marxists. We have to reach an Hegelian transcendence of both liberalism and Marxism in which the truths of both are not sacrificed to the false consciousness of either.

IN WHAT SOCIAL SETTING can this transformation be achieved? Here Lichtheim has produced characteristically interesting variations on familiar themes. The industrial society of our day is one in which the changed relationships between classes are the result of the lessening importance of market relationships and the increasing importance of political and technocratic interventions in the economy. It is not, as has been held by some others who have pointed out these tendencies, that Western industrial society has ceased to be capitalist; it is rather that the main features of industrial society are indeterminate as between an economic order dominated by public ownership and one dominated by private and corporate capital. Those features set limits to the possible changes in contemporary society. Socialists in particular must now recognize that the labor movement cannot hope to win political power. They therefore have a choice between continuing themselves to seek such power, in which case they must ally themselves with the technocrats, and abandoning the goals of power in favor of inflexible opposition to the new hierarchies. But Lichtheim is not concerned with providing political solution; a certain skepticism about all such solutions pervades his work. He is instead insistent about the need for political clarity, and this insistence involves him in conflict on two fronts.

First he is concerned with ideological survivals. He includes in his present book essays on the relics of liberal imperialism, the revival of neo-conservatism, the would-be “realism” of Hans Morgenthau and Niebuhr. He deals with each of these not only as intellectual but also as political and social phenomenon so that we can understand their roots in a now vanished world. Lichtheim’s method of condemnation by way of historical explanation is, as he himself notes, one that creates its own problems. If we, with Hegel and Lichtheim, expose the relativity of earlier ideologies by placing them in the historical process, how shall we escape the same fate in our turn? Lichtheim seems to reply, with Sartre, that the comprehension of the nature of the historical process rescues us from the relative and partial views to which incomprehension condemns us. It must, of course, be genuine comprehension, and so Lichtheim’s view of the philosophy of history stands or falls with the truth of his own views about history and society.

I HAVE ALREADY IMPLIED that Lichtheim is a committed partisan in other conflicts. For he is enough of an Hegelian to hold that “a historical structure is not a mere assemblage of its constituents” but “that which holds them together and imposes their real nature upon them.” He asserts indeed that historical structures do have a logic of their own and that the nature of the constituent parts of such a structure “is the manner in which they exemplify the logic of the whole of which they form part.” Thus Lichtheim sets his face against individualist and empiricist methodologies of history. This methodological commitment sharply distinguishes him from the adherents of the “end of ideology” thesis. For while he might agree with them about the exhaustion of certain social theories, and notably of classical Marxism, he would quarrel both with their understanding of ideology and with their piecemeal, empiricist approach to the problems of contemporary society. Lichtheim nonetheless views the totality of contemporary industrial society as one for which as yet no theory has supplied the comprehensive understanding which was available for earlier societies.

Yet it is not true that our contemporaries do not wear ideological masks of self-concealment. Not all of these are survivals; and although Lichtheim has registered his dissent with the “end of ideology” thesis elsewhere, he has nowhere, so far as I know—although it would be quite consistent with his views—remarked that this thesis itself has many of the characteristics of an ideology. For one aspect of the concept of ideology rightly stressed by Lichtheim concerns its critical and polemical use in distinguishing the official self-image of a society from the reality; but some of the exponents of the end of ideology thesis seem to proclaim that there is now no such distinction to be made, that things are what they seem at last. Thus the end of ideology thesis serves, whatever the subjective intentions of its exponents, to protect us from a systematic critique of the present. It is part of the cult of what is.

But do we yet possess the terms with which to carry through this critical task? The most important symptom of the intellectual weakness of contemporary radicalism is that it is so easily seduced by specious theorizing. Lichtheim’s strength lies partly in his skeptical refusal of inadequate theories. If this skepticism is inevitable, then it is no criticism of it that it will render its adherents as impotent in the face of social reality as are those who are deluded. At least the impotence of the skeptic will be truthful and honorable. But is such skepticism inevitable? I want to dissent from Lichtheim’s post-Marxist perspective at two key points, and it is this dissent which leads me to give a different answer to this question from the one implied by his writings.

LICHTHEIM in his new book chides the Polish sociologist, Stanislaw Ossowski—whom I take to be one of the great social theorists of the age—for blurring the difference between the class structure as it is in a given society and that same structure as conceived and perceived by the members of that society. But in his objectivism about social structure Lichtheim avoids confronting the question of how far our beliefs about social structure are indeed constitutive of these structures. No social structure, certainly no class structure, exists apart from the behavior of those who inhabit it, and in that behavior is manifested the beliefs which constitute status and other hierarchies. The social reality of money is conferred upon it by our beliefs in a precisely analogous way; at the point at which we cease to believe that a given currency has value and cease to manifest this belief in our behavior that currency does cease to have value. It is because of this fact that it is incorrect—as Lichtheim himself notes in another context—to conceive of ideologies only as external masks for the social faces they conceal. A successful ideology tends to make true that which it asserts to be true; conversely, a genuinely radical skepticism ought to be able to have an effect on what people believe to be true and thus on social institutions themselves. (There is an as yet untranslated book by Ossowski—O osobliwosciach nauk spolecznych—which throws light on these matters.)

Secondly, although Lichtheim recognizes for what they are a great many of the free-floating ideological defenses of the present state of things, he still accepts too much of the ideology of our society. Like Marcuse, whom he praises, Lichtheim accepts a view of advanced industrial society as almost necessarily stable and homogeneous. For him the possibility of fundamental conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat belongs to the past; and no other possibility of fundamental conflict is envisaged. Yet there is a key characteristic of our society to which one would have expected Lichtheim to be more sensitive, Our social and political life is formed around an idea which radicals have too often surrendered to classical liberalism as though it were liberalism’s own property—the idea of rights. It is not a marginal but a pervasive characteristic of advanced industrial societies that in them authority legitimates itself by acknowledging in theory and in public utterance rights which it can never in practice succeed in realizing. For example, there is a clear contradiction between the equality of educational opportunity which authority has to promise in order to mobilize needed skills, and the inequality of the job structure in respect of status, money, and power which must necessarily neutralize every attempt to realize equality in education. This is a contradiction which will eventually create a more radical consciousness in many people. Furthermore, the cluster of problems around this contradiction was itself created by the attempt to solve the problems of labor and capital without altering too radically the structure of class society. This too is something which calls for Hegelian analysis; yet none of the authors with whom Lichtheim is concerned have fastened upon it; nor has he done so himself.

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