Ideology is a philosophical type of allegiance purporting to transcend the mere particularities of family, religion or native hearth, and its essence lies in struggle. The world is a battlefield, in which there are two enemies. One is the oppressor, the other consists of fellow ideologists who have generally mistaken the conditions of liberation. Communists, anarchists, fascists and nationalists battled for allegiance throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. Within communism, as within all other ideologies, competing opinions-revisionist and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Stalinist, to mention only the larger battalions-have battled it out, and violent conflict on tactics can be traced down to the lowest levels. Yet for all their differences, ideologists can be specified in terms of a shared hostility to modernity: to liberalism in politics, individualism in moral practice, and the market in economics. All such practices represent the triumph of the anarchic particularism which is, in ideological terms, the soil of oppression. Left to themselves, the people of the actual world we live in will generate, ideologists all believe, nothing but structures of domination.
This basic commitment often presents serious problems to actual people who have both an ideological view of the world, and also a genuine commitment to liberal values. What view ought they to take of the many ideological regimes which have achieved collectivism at fearful cost in freedom and in human life? The solution is often to deplore what are called the 'mistakes' or 'excesses' of such regimes, while retaining a basic allegiance to collectivism. To understand this terminology requires that we should attend to both the logic and the rhetoric of what is at issue. Since ideology is the belief that everything that happens is explicable in terms of the relevant structure, mistakes and excesses are logically impossible. A mistake cannot be a mere mistake; it must be explicable in terms of some previously unconsidered feature of the structure. Rhetorically, however, mistakes and excesses are merely peripheral phenomena, which can be admitted without damage to the basic allegiance. The ideological term 'capitalism', which now has a universal currency, describes in strict usage an inherited condition of things in which humanity has been shattered into millions of disconnected fragments whose ant-like scurryings around society have created the structure of oppression from which we suffer. The first step in awakening from this nightmare must be to concentrate power into the hands of the liberating class. Ideologists have for most of the twentieth century believed that this first step has actually been taken in the Soviet Union and other ideological societies. This step has been, in ideological terms, of world-historical significance, while other criteria such as moral principle, or the happiness and prosperity of the relevant populations, are parochial concerns. They are necessarily on a lower level, and could only affect ideological allegiance if they were construed as evidence that such societies had not in fact taken that first giant step. Such an option is theoretically available to ideologists, and has been taken by some, but the issue for the moment remains a matter of intense dispute.
Even so brief a characterization of ideology suffices to show that the academic enquirer walks straight into a minefield. In particular, given that there is a cosmic battle between progress and reaction, how is it possible for an academic student, no doubt himself equipped with a variety of passions and loyalties, to study the formal character of the battle without presenting a version of things which helps one side or the other. Ideology is a form of theoretical conscription: everyone, by virtue of class, sex, race or nation, is smartly uniformed and assigned to one side or the other. In this battle, there are no civilians like Pierre at Borodino wandering over the field and tolerated by the combatants. Ideology thus rejects any claim to neutrality as an imposture, for we are all involved, and the very categories of academic enquiry, with their emphasis on studying what is actually there, serve to obscure the contradictions which (so it is argued) alone give us the clue to the reality.
At the lowest level, the argument that the student of ideology must himself be an ideologist is merely the squawking of a mother hen protecting her chicks. It doesn't, after all, matter what the academic student is up to; it only matters whether what he says is true, and illuminating. The academic study of hot topics is risky but not always unprofitable, and the academic practice of seeking purely to understand (caricatured as being a claim to neutrality) depends not upon purity of motives, but upon a formal process of enquiry in terms of the progressive clarification of questions and the accumulation of findings. The virtue, such as it is, lies in the dialogue, not in the speaker. At a more fundamental level, the reason why ideologists invoke the defence of unavoidable partisanship against criticism is that an ideology is not just a body of propositions but the statement of a collective project and the defence of a whole way of life; and it is indeed true that there cannot be a neutral judgment between ways of life, though there are many interesting things that can be said.