I know I’ve been on and on about how the Revolutions of the late-Sixties and early-Seventies here bear much resemblance to the Content and Method of Marxist ideology, and of the Leninist, Stalinist, and Maoist incarnations of that ideology.
I hope you’ve realized by now that when I make that connection I am not fooling around looking to score cheap rhetorical points. Or make the simplistic argumentum ad Hitlerum or reductio ad Stalinum; that is to say, simplistically but vividly making a connection between something in the present and a truly and unarguably awful past.
As I have been working through the recent Posts on assorted ‘liberal-progressive’ commentators currently trying to move Us quickly and quietly past those ‘revolutions’ in order to restore some sense of ‘unity’ that the Democrats can rely on for electoral success, I have been circling around the fact that these truly ‘revolutionary’ Methods , as well as much of their Content, have had seriously damaging effects on the polity – intended or unintended.
So I cannot accept the implicit assumption of the commentariat that any continued doubt about or objection to the so-called ‘culture war(s)’ are merely left-over sour-grapes and unsuccessful ‘backlash’ against a gloriously good and marvelously achieved victory effected by the Left’s ‘revolutions’ over the past 40 years.
This is not merely a matter of ‘perception’ or ‘attitude’.*
The consequences are real and pretending (or ‘re-perceiving’) that they are not there will not counter their effects; these consequences cannot be wished away. They are not figments of anybody’s ‘sour grapes’ or imagination; they are the very real – and hardly unforeseeable – consequences of revolutionary Methods and they are now burrowed deeply into the national ethos.
And it was the vote-addled Dems – eventually joined by vote-hungry Republicans – that put the power of the government behind these Methods and the Content of the assorted agendas.
I came across an article by the political scientist Edward Shils, entitled “Ideology and Civility: On the Politics of the Intellectual”.** It was written in 1958, at least half a decade before the agitations of the later Sixties.
In that far-away era of the late 1950s, Shils was looking backward to Fascism and Communism, especially as those ideologies exerted deforming pressures on the intellectuals in the European countries, and actually in the form of McCarthyism – which never got very far here – had a bit of an effect in this country as well.
He is looking backward to examine some of the characteristics and dynamics of those aggressive ideologies’ revolutionary praxis and ideology. Fascism and Communism constitute, in his view, a ‘family’ with certain characteristics.
So this is something of an exercise in historical analysis in order to understand how intellectuals are affected by aggressive and assertive ideological pressures.
But to read it in the light of what has happened here since 1968 … is something of a revelation.
And that should be disturbing.
Shils looks at “ideological politics” (p.450): they “paralyze the free dialectic of intellectual life” and “introduce standards irrelevant to discovery and creation”; they constrict or break “the consensus necessary for a free and spontaneous order”. All politics must begin with some common ground; human beings cannot live in a continuous state of tension caused by a too-wide gap in fundamental assumptions.
While there is always some difference in goals and methods, with room for novel approaches, yet still humans can’t live in a state of constant fundamental ‘difference’. It may sound workable ‘in theory’, but the human community that can operate under such strain does not exist in actual reality.
Ideological politics (IP) take as their primary articles of faith that “politics should be conducted from the standpoint of a single, comprehensive, coherent set of beliefs” and that that set of beliefs “must override every other consideration” (p.450). You can see where there is no room for give-and-take at the very core of the IP enterprise. Instead of a politics that provides a forum for somewhat differing views on the best path to take and how to do so, you are saddled with a pre-determined ideological Content; the only Method is agreement and submission to that Content. This is a ‘politics’ hell-and-gone from what the Framers envisioned, both in Content and Method.
Further, “these beliefs attribute supreme significance to a single group or class – the nation, the ethnic folk, the proletariat – and to the leader and the party as the true representatives of … all virtue” (p.450). You can see things start to get interesting here if you include ‘gender’ or some other identity to the list of nation, ethnic folk, and proletariat.
For all practical purposes the Beltway’s over-eager embrace of advocacies already pretty drunk on ‘revolutionary’ examples went very far toward introducing here a truly Ideological Politics that has deranged the core dynamics of Constitutional politics; Constitutional politics is the ‘genius’ of the American political system.
Worse, IP “correspondingly views as the seat and source of all evil a foreign power, an ethnic group … or the bourgeois class” (p.450). That ‘correspondingly’, of course, includes the fact that such an ‘enemy’ – who, of course, must be ‘evil’ – is absolutely indispensable to IP: people have to be kept in line, kept on-message, kept ‘with the program’. They are not free Citizens but are members of a ‘team’ – and the very concept of ‘team’ involves an ‘opposing team’.
And since politics isn’t a game but deals with hugely serious human energies, then that ‘opposing team’ must be an ‘enemy’ or ‘the enemy’. There is no other way. And of course, in this town 35 or so years ago, ‘men’ and ‘white’ and ‘working class’ were all added to the list that Shils had compiled from the 1930s.
In fact, IP lends itself easily to the idea that people are not Citizens so much as they are members of an ‘army’ – because, of course, they are involved in a ‘war’ against whatever enemy has been selected from or added to the list.
The Identity Politics of Our modern American reality can be seen as a variant of Ideological Politics – the ‘good’ guys/persons are your own Identity, and the ‘bad’ guys/persons are whomever has been selected off the bad-guys/evil list. And if you enjoy several Identities, then you have a larger palette of ‘enemies’ with which to color your day.
Conversely, of course, if you are some Identity’s bad-guy, then in a system where the government has gotten into the Identity-pandering business, you are going to find yourself on the receiving end of a crusade. And if you are the designated bad-guy for two or more such favored Identities, then you are in that much more deep doodoo – and your government, as you might like to think it, is going to be part of the problem. A very big part.
It gets worse.
As Shils rightly observes, looking at the 1930s, IP is not content simply being a ‘politics’: its own self-declared “centrality” means that it must “radiate into every sphere of life – that it replace religion, that it provide aesthetic criteria, that it rule over scientific research and philosophic thought, that it regulate sexual and family life” (p.451). I recall to your attention that Shils wrote this in 1958, in case you’ve already started making some connections to more recent ‘politics’ around here.
And this ‘imperialist’ – if I may – aspect of IP flows directly from the IP-ers’ belief “that they alone have the truth about the right ordering of life, of life as a whole and not just of political life” (p.451). So either you ‘get it’ or ‘you just don’t get it’. Because there is only the one ‘it’, and they have it and you don’t. Which is not a really good basis for mutuality in politics. Especially if you disagree with their ‘it’, or that they have ‘it’ in the first place. Or that there even is one single ‘it’. And so forth.
It gets worse.
Shils rightly deduces that because of this belief that they are the sole possessors of the Right Ordering, the IP-ers harbor “a deep distrust of the traditional institutions – family, church, economic organizations, and schools …” (p.451). And you can see how the political and cultural life in any nation infected with IP is going to become a zero-sum game: there can be only one ‘winner’ and all the rest must ‘lose’.
It’s not hard to see how this distrust meant the sustained ‘deconstruction’ of all of American society’s anchoring institutions – all of them allegedly engaged in ‘oppressing’ everybody with the Wrong Ordering of life and love and mind and spirit and soul.
And it’s hard not to think that if Shils’s article had been more widely circulated half a century ago, then We might have all been a little more prepared when the onslaught of 1968 hit. And perhaps might have saved Our politics from the attack of the Ideologicals (after watching all those alien pod-people attacks on all those Saturday afternoons in the 1950s, did anybody ever think the real attack would come disguised as ‘progress’ and ‘reform’?).
Interestingly, though hardly illogically, Ideologicals do not really trust ‘politics’ and don’t think much of politicians. But of course; when you are in sole possession of the Knowledge of the Right Ordering, what would you find attractive in compromisers and half-way covenanters?
IP-ers paint the ‘political’ as a realm of tawdry compromise and bad faith; it is a realm of dark and murky complexity and a sort of sneaky realm where participants avoid the light of public examination and scrutiny. And it is ‘inefficient’ compared to the direct, ‘clear’, and oh-so-public posturing of the revolutionaries and their bright (and brilliant, of course) ideology.
Not only would you be antisocial if you refused to ‘get it’, but you’d have to be a monstrous dope as well.
And of course you would be a traitor: to your class according to the 1930s Left or to your country and your Volk according to the 1930s Right. Substitute ‘gender’ and ‘race’ or ‘Identity group’ and immediately you’re in disturbingly familiar and contemporary territory. And toss in that you’d be a ‘self-hating’ member of your group, if you’d like.
Which is probably why the vote-desperate Beltway bent so far over to please their new Ideological constituencies: the IP-ers weren’t just playing hard-to-get, they really didn’t like pols. And what they demanded pretty much deranged American politics. And the Beltway just went along with every shopping list and list of demands that was presented for immediate fulfillment.
But Shils had realized this from his study of the 1930s: IP-ers only allow themselves to be characterized as ‘political’ because that’s the “conventional” term; it’s a useful cover, sort of like sheep’s clothing. But really, and as they have worked in history, “it has not signified that [they] were ready to participate constitutionally in the political system” (p.451). And so it has been with Us: the ruling juntas and advocacies early on declared the Constitution “quaint” (and probably a lot worse than that: tainted to the point of irrelevance and illegitimacy by the ‘oppressive’ predispositions of the Framers).
In fact, he saw while studying what happened in the 1930s and before, “extra-constitutionality has been inherent in their conceptions and aspirations, even when their procedures have seemed to lie within the constitution” (p.451). In this country, it has taken longer to subvert things since – oppressive or not – the American polity remained for a time strongly grounded in the foundations the Framers had so carefully constructed.
And it gets worse.
Because Shils also realized that the IP-ers not only included the actual constitutional requirements, the laws and judicial decisions, in their list of things to get beyond, but also “the moral presuppositions of these” (p.451).
And that assault has been two-pronged.
The first prong is a direct rejection of any form of traditional morality.
For two reasons.
In the first place because any traditional morality was a rival to ‘revolutionary’ morality in the zero-sum, either-or struggle that is the flat, dark, violent world of Ideological Politics. A ‘God’ or any capital-letter being would both rival the authority that the revolution wants to wield and would also stand as a potential Judge of the revolution … and revolutionaries, like countries and individuals, don’t like to be judged – unless they own the judge.
And in the second place, because traditional morality implies some sort of Authority from Beyond the flat, single-dimension world of the ‘political’ and the revolutionary world; the world-view of revolutionary politics is that there is nothing except this world, and that people are ‘trapped’ in it and have no other options, and that therefore they must rely on ‘the revolution’ and its ideology and its cadres for whatever help and guidance there is to make their lives more bearable or – more attractively – to fulfill their lives.
The second prong - required by the stubborn and deep religiosity of the American populace – is an effort to discredit any religious organization with enough public stature to possibly oppose the revolutionary ideology. Far more subtle than Stalin’s blunt murder of Polish intelligentsia – including all priests – in the Katyn forest, Goebbels had tried to weaken opposition to the Nazi Party in heavily Catholic Bavaria by trying to arrest and try an entire monastery full of Catholic male religious for sexual perversions. (He had to call it off in the face of public opposition.)
Only in this way can ideologues replace the existing order with their own new (and oh-so-Right order). They have to destroy people’s faith and confidence in any other source of help and security; they have to literally cut off any alternative sources of people’s trust and hope, leaving people with only the revolution and its ideology as the source to whose authority people must submit.
And it gets worse. (And more familiar.)
“Ideological politics are alienative politics” (p.451). They try to divide people from the traditions and institutions of the culture that supports their lives, their hopes, and their efforts.
And so “ideological politicians feel no affinity with such institutions, and they participate in them for purposes very different from those who have preceded them in the conduct of these institutions” (p.452). I can’t help but think that after 40 years We are now saddled with a majority of politicians (especially at the national level) who no longer care – who in their careers have perhaps never really cared – to sustain and nurture (and, yes, ‘reform’) the traditional institutions and culture that comprise the ‘genius’ of the American approach to politics and government.
Rather, “ideological politics are the politics of friend-foe, we-they, who-whom” (p.452).
That ‘who-whom’ is a reference to Lenin, who held as rock-bottom truth that all politics is merely a matter of who is doing what to whom. It requires a victim-oppressor view of human society and politics, where all persons are either oppressing or being oppressed, are victimizers or victims. And that surely strikes a contemporary note. And a profoundly disturbing one.
Bush the Lesser and his coterie surely had the chutzpah to trumpet this, in the best Fox-News style. But long decades before them, ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’ were the watchword concepts of the Left here.
“Those who are not on the side of the ideological politician are, according to ideological politics, against him [or her]” (p.452). This spells death for a deliberative and widely-grounded public politics of deliberation, argumentation, and consensus-building.
Which ties in with my recent Posts where I have pointed out how, at this point, with the money running out and baaad consequences clearly more obvious to people no longer happily distracted by spending ‘credit-wealth’ that they no longer have, ‘progressive’ commentators and intellectuals are trying to get people to accept things as they now are and not ‘look back’.
Because ‘back’ there is the long stretch of decades where IP did an end-run around deliberative and consensus politics. Instead, ‘reforms’ were imposed from the top-down just as Mao tried in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. The results here may prove to be as disastrous for America as they were for China back then. History, after all, hasn’t ‘ended’ and is most surely not ‘dead’.
In the IP world, ‘compromise’, ‘prudence’, and the art of what’s possible given present realities … all these are nothing more than foot-dragging and cowardice in the face of the demand to TOTALLY and IMMEDIATELY impose the ‘Good’ solution and eradicate all the ‘Evil’.
It is Shylock’s terrible mistake in thinking he could exact a pound of flesh with no adverse consequences and no messy complications.
But even more than ‘totality’, IP is “obsessed with futurity” (p.452). If you put up with a whole bunch of wrenching changes right now, and don’t waste time asking any questions, then at some point in the future all of this is going to work out to be the bestest thing in the world for you. Or, as Wimpy would put it to Popeye: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” (a cartoon, nicely, that first saw the light in the era of the 1920s and 1930s).
There is a religious root to IP. Specifically, two of them.
First, the “millenarian” belief that God would come to Judge the Good and the Evil on the Last Day (p.459). While the Catholic Church downplayed it in order to focus people on their own spiritual and moral struggles in this life under the guidance and help of the Beyond, the Protestant impulse was to develop emotional intensity by emphasizing the ever-present Judgmental presence of God here and now.
Second, the Manichean belief that the world is fundamentally and clearly divided into the realm of the Good and the realm of the Evil (and often, the two forces seem equally matched). The Catholic teaching sought to blunt this dangerous simplicity by emphasizing the Divine Creation of everything and everyone, and the reality of Sinfulness in each person: there were not ‘good’ and ‘evil’ individuals, but rather the potential for ‘good’ and ‘evil’ existed in each human being. The focus thus became the individual’s and the community’s mastery of its own potentials for doing ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
The Protestant impulse trended, in its more outré forms, toward the believers (by definition ‘good’) separating themselves from the ‘non-believers’ (by definition ‘evil’).
And it didn’t take too much alchemy for a particularly dangerous blending whereby the Good got the go-ahead from the Lord of the Harvest to start separating the Good from the Evil RIGHT HERE AND NOW.
The American Left absorbed the Marxist-Leninist secularized version of ‘millenarianism’: there is only this material world, the evil is economic and class oppression, and the oppressed classes must rise up and eradicate the evil owner-class and share all material things (according to the dictates of a dictatorship of the proletariat). Change "economic and class" to "cultural and race/gender" and you've got the mis-named 'liberal' position of the past 40 years.
The American Right – during the Reagan era – embraced the previously marginal Protestant Fundamentalism that considered those who ‘believed’ to be both ‘good’ and also authorized by God to smite the evildoers and wreak judgment upon them.
Neither approach bode well for a trust in the ultimate decency of The People once they had gone through the slow process of deliberating and arriving at some decision or consensus as to what was possible for communal policy.
In the late Sixties here, I really think that the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist playbook was simply embraced by a cocky and righteous Left that figured it could ‘baptize’ the Methods and core presumptions in the service – not of ‘class’ – but of ‘race’, ‘gender’, and so forth. And anybody who didn’t agree with that ‘just didn’t get it’.
And in the early Eighties here, I really think that the God’s-Deputies playbook was simply embraced by a cocky and righteous Right that figured it could now go forth and stretch forth the nation’s hand as if that hand were God’s hand … and anybody who didn’t agree with that could merely be dismissed as ‘evil’.
Back in the day, St. Augustine – with his powerful intellect harnessed to the strong impulses to both good and evil that he saw within himself and in all the humans and organizations around him – was able to create a conceptual force-field strong enough to contain these monstrously powerful impulses. He even went so far as to realize that to the extent that it was subject to the deformities of this dimension, not even the Church (the Catholic Church at the time) could fully embody the Kingdom of God; this earthly dimension is one of permanent incompleteness and imperfection.
But over time, and certainly in the past few centuries, there was an erosion of the type of force-field that could hold it all together, and the awesome and oppositional forces broke loose.
And, as I proposed above, found their way into Our midst through both the Left and the Right in the past few decades.
And both Left and Right have lured Us on with guarantees that if We just follow them down their chosen path, We will reach a much better, perhaps perfectly completed and fulfilled world. Such promises, of course, are essential to getting people to disregard the utter novelty, potential monstrousness, and even outright wrongness of new agendas and programmes.
And as We saw in Vietnam, as things ‘go south’ with increasingly obvious clarity, governments and those who serve governments are reduced to the most dishonorable methods to keep up the illusion that things will work if you just give them a little more time. There is a light at the end of the tunnel; you will be gladly paid Tuesday for a hamburger today.
Ultimately, Western Civilization, as Shils sees it, will always be vulnerable to this violent, divisive, self-righteous impulse to divide Good from Evil here and now and totally, and to determine – with mere human wisdom – who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’ and to punish – with mere human authority – those who are designated, by whatever criteria, as ‘evil’ (p.463).
Because there abides deep down in the human heart the latent desire to be in direct, immediate, clear and un-doubtable contact with the power of the Beyond. Or at least with the ‘power’ that seems most capable of mastering the uncertainties of this world, this vale-of-tears dimension.
The Catholic Church had always taken the approach of ‘patience’, and a refusal to indulge in the excitements of ‘immediacy’ and ‘un-doubtable’ contact with the Ultimate. Humans were not designed to penetrate to such a level of directness, and had to make do with their more limited but still capable capacities to remain in faithful contact with the Ultimate.
But since the break-up of the Medieval European consensus (once called’Christendom’), under the influence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolutions in the face of mass industrialized society, this delicate tensive balance has been broken.
When Shils wrote this article, as I said, he was looking backward from the late 1950s to the 1930s and further; he was trying to make sense of how revolutionary developments had exercised a deforming power on intellectuals in Europe in those times.
I don’t know if he realized that within a decade, and here in the United States as well as in Western Europe, the dynamics of those revolutions – that he in 1958 considered of ‘historical’ significance – would burst forth anew, with some re-badging as necessary, but still exercising all their awesome deformative powers.
But they have and they did. And now We are faced with the wracked result of a culture and a society and a civilization and a Constitutional ethos that has been battered and corroded from both Left and Right for decades, with – alas – the full collusion of the government (which is now melted into one amorphous Beltway).
As Lenin famously asked (without attributing his quote to the Gospels): What then is to be done?
*I’ve often used the very real example of the mess at the Service Academies, where any doubt about or objection to the re-arranging of the entire military ethos and its praxis in order to smooth the path for women in combat is actually considered nothing more than the perceiver’s ignorant misperception or willfully obstructive ‘attitude’ … which he will change (or shut up about and keep to himself) or else lose his career before it is even begun.
**Published in ‘The Sewanee Review’, Vol. 66, No. 3, pp. 450-480. It is available on-line through JSTOR if you have access.