George Walford: Academic Ideology

We recently attended a meeting at which a professor of sociology was speaking on ideology. What we have to say about his talk is not intended to be hostile and is not directed only at the ideas held by him personally, but it may be regarded as uncomplimentary, so it is perhaps better not to name a name. Let us take him as representing the academic viewpoint.

What was said bore the stamp of the speaker’s individuality but was none the less the standard academic approach to the subject (see OF APPLES AND ORANGES, above). It opposed the marxist view that ideology is a disguised expression of class interests; the speaker regarded this as demonstrably invalid. We would ourselves he inclined to qualify that rejection, holding that there are features of thinking – which is to say ideological features – affected by class interest. Any given employee and any given employer have different interests in the matter of wages, and this is something they think about, it relates to their respective ideologies. But that is perhaps a fine point; on the big issue we agree with the speaker: political attachment is not, and is not coming to be, governed by class position. Marxism may be in intention a movement for, but it is not, (or not any more than is Conservatism), a movement of the working class (and the same is true of socialism, communism and anarchism).

The speaker showed, with supporting quotations, that Marx accused his opponents of ideology while holding his own thinking and his own movement to he free of it. He went on to oppose this view, asserting that in fact marxism is itself ideological, while the work of thinkers closer to the speaker’s own viewpoint (Wittgenstein was named) is not. In discussion we pointed out that there were now before the meeting two bodies of opinion: on the one side Marx and those who agreed with him, on the other the speaker and those who accepted views similar to his. Each of these accused the other of ideology while claiming to be free of that deadly influence itself. On what rational grounds could an observer decide between them?

The reply repeated what had been said. It made it clear that the speaker strongly believed his own group to be free of ideology and Marx’s to be suffering from it, but if it included reasons or evidence to support the belief we failed to recognise them.

The academic view of ideology is a stronger and clearer formulation of the opinion held by most laymen who think about the subject. It is marked by two features: First, the influence of ideology is to be, condemned. Second, ideology is exhibited by the people and movements who stand out clearly from the general body of society and not by those who comply with it.

Conservatives, physical scientists, shopkeepers, doctors, businessmen, orthodox academics and the general run of people who live their personal lives without bothering themselves about social affairs, all those who fit easily into existing society, these are thought to be free of ideology. It is the reformers and, even more, the revolutionaries who are thought to he affected by it.

Analogy is not a strong method of argument but it can often be illuminating, and there is a useful one to he drawn here. It is the analogy between this attitude and one commonly held by orthodox doctors and academics (and thoughtful laymen too) before Freud effected his revolution. As the modern academics regard ideology so their predecessors regarded irrationality. First, its influence was to he condemned. Second, it was recognised only in the behaviour of people who stood out clearly from the general run (the mad). People who fitted easily into the life of those around them were thought to be free of it.

Freud did not eliminate this view, for it is widely held today, but he made it untenable by anybody who is thinking closely about the question. He showed that irrational behaviour is universal, that those who exhibit it in easily recognisable ways do not form a group separate from normal people; they stand towards one end of a range in which each of us has a place. In doing this he showed this recognition, that irrationality affects us all, to be of positive value, throwing new light upon a great deal of behaviour (particularly in personal, familial and sexual matters), which was formerly incomprehensible.

We suggest that the academics, in recognising ideology only in its more aggressive and obvious forms, and in holding it up as something to be rejected, are committing, in another field, the same error as those pre-Freudian thinkers. And in doing this they are excluding themselves from understanding of a wide range of behaviour. This is the more regrettable because it is behaviour affecting the social and political fields where, given the powers both for good and evil now at the disposal.of humanity, it would be well to obtain the clearest understanding as quickly as possible.

For the academics to recognise the universality of ideology would be to accept (as the systematic ideologists already recognise for themselves) that their own thinking is ideological. This acceptance, we can assure them from experience, is upsetting; it entails radical adjustments in one’s mental attitudes. But the academics-are barred, by the standards of their profession, from rejecting an insight, a theory or a proposition because it entails unpleasant consequences.

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THE CHURCHILLIAN RESTAURANT: Never, in the history of human catering, was so little served to so many by so few.

THE MILTONIC CAFETERIA: They don’t get served who only sit and wait.

from Ideological Commentary 21, November 1985.