“It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said
and however he Battered, when he got me to his
house, he would sell me for a slave.”

—John Bunyan

Kenneth Minogue explains at the outset that he prefers a narrow definition of “ideology”: the word refers not to all action-oriented systems of belief but only to certain types of false ones. The “central idea” discernible in the lives and thoughts of “ideologists,” he says, “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.” Minogue does not provide one comprehensive definition of ideology, but scattered throughout the book are statements that may be combined to suggest a definition: “any doctrine which presents one hidden and saving truth about the evils of the world in the form of social analysis” is an ideology, as is any “philosophical type of allegiance purporting to transcend the mere particularities of family, religion or native hearth, [whose] essence lies in struggle” between just two enemies, on the battlefield that is the world.

Because “ideology is the belief that everything that happens is explicable in terms of the relevant structure” of society, all ideologists share a “hostility to modernity: to liberalism in politics, individualism in moral practice, and the market in economics.” Minogue views ideology as “a purportedly scientific doctrine which reveals the secret of the human condition” and is “associated with a specific class of person nominated as the bearers of the motor of history.” “Ideology explains evil and facilitates change” and announces that “the business of life is liberation,” even if most people live under the illusion that they are free and do not realize that “what we do and what we think are actually determined by the structure” of society. “Ideology’s core,” Minogue finds, “is reason’s protest against an irrational world.”

Modern ideology, says Minogue, was born in the 1840’s when Marx transformed the Christian doctrine of alienation of man from God into a materialist doctrine of alienation of man from man and from himself Ideologists rejected free will and blamed alienation on men’s living within a “system” that determines all thoughts and actions. Marx claimed scientific status for his theory but could not keep moral condemnation out of his analysis, although logically the oppressors, too, are products of the system. The ideologist must unmask the hidden structure and raise the consciousness of the now-passive victims so that they will share his “revelation.” The world is divided into those who know and everyone else. Ideology is, then, essentially elitist, although its bearers see themselves as humble teachers of the truth.

In arguing with opponents, the ideologist does not behave like a scholar, who admits the fallibility of his reasoning and weighs evidence impartially. The ideologist uses ad hominem arguments and other illegitimate techniques of rhetoric to discredit his adversaries, for there can be no real debate with mouthpieces of the enemy or victims of false consciousness. In his effort to propagate the truth, the ideologist must take possession of the past, for ideology “turns history into a backdrop to liberation.” Wherever ideologists have won power, however, they have instituted more tyranny than they have overthrown; “the charge that capitalist society suppresses all except capitalist ideas”—which of course is untrue—”is a blueprint for the censorship and control exercised by ideological societies.”

The ideologists’ goal of Utopia is ambiguous. Being perfect, the future society must be static. But because it is to follow the liberation of humanity from alien constraints, it must be open to whatever changes free people bring about. A related ambiguity clouds ideological politics: “whereas the doctrine of ideology assumes that mankind is enslaved, politics is an activity of the free.” Ideologues involved in politics still somehow interpret everything politically. They see politics as the clash of “interests,” which are “ultimately derived from the structure of domination.” Politics aims at compromise and temporary occupancy of office; ideologists work for one revolution, once and for all. The state is not neutral but an instrument of the dominant interest. Ideologues are confused at this point: they sometimes succeed in their campaigns for change, but “if popular pressure can achieve so much, what can it not achieve?”

Many readers will find these propositions (and Minogue’s refutations) all too familiar. Yet Minogue’s references to previous studies are scanty and sometimes misleading. He virtually ignores the contributions of Gordon Leff, Peter Berger, and my own The Radical Persuasion, 1890-1917, as well as important contributions by Gerhart Niemeyer and Eric Voegelin. I mention these omissions only to stress the difference between insights that depend on the accidental brilliance of a rare individual and those that are accessible to anyone with the requisite knowledge and interest. This difference has implications for the analysis of the epistemological question that Minogue explicitly recognizes as central to his project.

A substantive weakness of Minogue’s critique derives from his perception of the relationship, in the ideologist’s mind, between beliefs and emotion. Minogue says that the ideologist is dominated by his one ruling thought and insists on bringing every fact and event under that one rubric. Yet we all know people who believe in feminism or some other ideology but are not possessed by it and do not explain everything in its terms. We also know people who are possessed by what most people would ordinarily regard as sensible opinions—such as anticommunism—but who fail to display other traits on Minogue’s list. Evidently, it is possible to embrace a nonideological belief-system in an ideological way, and an ideology in a nonideological way. Minogue’s confusion on this point leads to uncertainty about American liberalism—whether it is or is not an ideology. (Throughout the book he uses “liberalism” in its European sense, as a Good Thing.) At one point he implies that “reformism” occupies a gray area or stopping-place between ideology and truth, but the question is left hanging.

Still another weakness is the failure to present opponents’ arguments in their strongest forms and to anticipate their responses to his refutations. Since ideologies are polemical by nature, their defenses are integral parts of their very structures. As a former ideologist myself, I easily thought of replies to many of Minogue’s refutations. Unfortunately, he did not present the rejoinders that would have strengthened his arguments. Moreover, he presents a Marx who could never have won millions of intelligent followers. He misstates Marx’s theory of surplus value in four widely separated places in the book. Minogue’s interpretation—that the worker’s surplus product is stolen from him by his employer—was precisely the theory that Marx set out to refute. Marx proposed a “scientific” explanation in which the employer makes a profit after paying the worker the full value of the letter’s labor power. The employer, according to Marx, owns the product the moment it comes into existence, and therefore cannot steal it from the worker, because the worker has sold him not the product but his labor power for a certain period. Minogue also ridicules Marx’s statement that man makes his own history but within certain constraints on the grounds that Marx’s “but” reveals the contradiction in environmental determinism. But every philosophy must grapple with this problem; the relationship between free will and external influences is more difficult, and Marx a more subtle thinker, than one would gather from Minogue’s critique.

On other occasions, Minogue wins his arguments with ideologists by redefining their terms his way. For example: “freedom is the nonentity of the ideological terminus”—meaning (I think) that ideologists do not include freedom in their blueprints for the future. Since the ideologist defines both freedom and the terminus (the future good society) in quite different terms from Minogue’s, he is substituting a syllogism that uses his own definitions for those of real ideologists. To score points off a straw man—or against second-rate or atypical thinkers, as Minogue occasionally does—is to weaken one’s own position. I emphasize that I agree with his conclusions; I am arguing only that he has arrived at them by shortcuts that depict ideology as a far less formidable adversary than it is.

One reason ideology is so formidable is that it has the power to invade every department of life, thought, and action. Yet Minogue takes his examples from a surprisingly narrow range of fields: German philosophy, social science (focusing on the atypical Bertell Oilman, Ralph Miliband, and Henri Lefebvre), and feminist propaganda. His generalizations about ideology—that machine for generating doctrines encompassing all of reality—cry out for testing in other fields. For example, the fields of fiction and popular entertainment, which ideologists have invaded in force, display the same images of man and of the future (especially in science fiction), the same attitudes and assumptions, as in social science. But they give freer rein to the ideological imagination and often have more damaging consequences. The arts in general are both relevant to and absent from Minogue’s analysis.

The book’s other flaws are too numerous to elaborate upon. Some are problems of substance—e.g., while Marx put class relations in the base, Minogue thinks he made them part of the superstructure. Others are problems of form—e.g., names are misspelled; many points are repeated over and over and over; Lincoln issued something called The Emancipation “Edict”; Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional Mister Dooley, the Chicago saloon keeper, seems to have become a real-life Tammany mayor of New York.

In politics, the Eleventh Commandment (that one should not speak ill of fellow-politicians on one’s own side) may sometimes be justified. In scholarship it never is. The high praise that Minogue’s book has received on the right, though perhaps due to a widespread ignorance of the relevant literature, may also, or instead, signify a lower standard for scholars who are on the same side than for others. Minogue has certainly proven, here and in his other writings, that he is a conservative. But conservatives no less than liberals need the best possible scholarship, and frank criticism is indispensable to our efforts to get it. As a long-time enemy of grade-inflation (which is a product of ideology), I cannot give the book more than a B-.


[Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, by Kenneth Minogue (New York: St. Martin’s Press) $27.50]