The Closing of the American Mind
In Marx, ideology meant the false system of thought elaborated by the ruling class to justify its rule in the eyes of the ruled, while hiding its real selfish motives. Ideology was sharply distinguished in Marx from science, which is what Marx's system is—i.e., the truth based on disinterested awareness of historical necessity. In Communist society there will be no ideology. 'The pure mind,' to use Nietzsche's formulation, still exists in Marx's thought, as it had in all philosophy—the possibility of knowing the ways things are, an intellectual capacity irreducible to anything else. Ideology is a term of contempt; it must be seen through in order to be seen for what it is. Its meaning is not in itself but requires translation back into the underlying reality of which it is a misleading representation. The man without ideology, the one possessing science, can look to the economic infrastructure and see that Plato's political philosophy, which teaches that the wise should rule, is only a rationalization for the aristocrats' position in a slave economy; or that Hobbes's political philosophy, which teaches man's freedom in the state of nature and the resulting war of all against all, is only the cover for the political arrangements suitable for the rising bourgeoisie. This point of view provides the foundation for intellectual history, which tells the story behind the story. Instead of looking at Plato and Hobbes for information about what courage is—a subject important to us—we should see how their definitions of courage suited those who controlled the means of production.
But what applies to Plato and Hobbes cannot apply to Marx; otherwise the very assertion that these thinkers were economically determined would be itself a deception, simply the ideology for the new exploiters Marx happens to serve. The interpretation would self-destruct. He would not know what to look for in the thinkers who were inevitably and unconsciously in the grip of the historical process, for he would be in the same condition as they were. There are certainly historical preconditions of Marx's science; but they do not detract from the truth of his insight, which is therefore a kind of absolute moment in history that no further history can alter. This truth is the warrant for revolution, and the moral equivalent of the natural rights that warranted the American Revolution. Without it all the killing is unjust and frivolous.
However, by 1905, Lenin was speaking of Marxism as an ideology, which means that it too can make no claim to truth. In less than half a century Marx's absolute had been relativized. The implausibility—on which Nietzsche insisted in his radical historicism—of the absolute moment and of a standpoint outside history had become commonly acknowledged and made Marx a fossil. This was the beginning of the inner rot that has finally made Marxism unbelievable to anyone who thinks. Marxism itself became ideology. The historicization of Marx's thought, the turning of his method against him, now looked like the resolute taking of a stand within the universal flux, the sign of the creative man, a defiance of the meaninglessness of things—that is, it looked this way to those who had fallen under Nietzsche's spell. A parody of this new look is to be found in the person of Sartre, who had all those wonderful experiences of nothingness, the abyss, nausea, commitment without ground—the result of which was, almost without fail, support of the Party line.
Ideology today, in popular speech, is, in the first place, generally understood to be a good and necessary thin—unless it is bourgeois ideology. The evolution of the term was made possible by the abandonment, encouraged by Nietzsche, of the distinction between true and false in political and moral matters. Men and societies need myths, not science, by which to live. In short, ideology became identical to values, and that is why it belongs on the honor roll of terms by which we live. If we examine Weber's three forms of legitimacy—tradition, reason and charisma—which cause men to accept a domination by other men founded on violence, we see immediately that we would call them ideologies, as well as values. Weber, of course, meant that all societies or communities of human beings require such violent domination—as the only way order emerges from chaos in a world with no ordering force in it other than man's creative spirituality—while Marxists still vaguely hope for a world where there are values without domination. This is all that remains of their Marxism, and they can and do fellow-travel with the Nietzscheans a goodly bout de chemin. One sees their plight in the fact that ideology no longer has its old partner, science, in their thought, but stands in lonely grandeur.
Moreover, ideology is no longer very distinctly tied to economics, nor is it simply determined. It has been cut loose from necessity's apron strings in creativity's realm. Rational causality just does not, since Nietzsche, seem sufficient to explain the historically unique event or thought. Capitalist ideology is now instinctively taken to be something more like the Protestant ethic than what is described in Capital When one talks to Marxists these days and asks them to explain philosophers or artists in terms of objective economic conditions, they smile contemptuously and respond, 'That is vulgar Marxism,' as if to ask, 'Where have you been for the last seventy-five years?' No one likes to be considered vulgar, so people tend to fall back into embarrassed silence. Vulgar Marxism is, of course, Marxism. Nonvulgar Marxism is Nietzsche, Weber, Freud, Heidegger, as well as the host of later Leftists who drank at their trough—such as Lukacs, Kojeve, Benjamin, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre—and hoped to enroll them in the class struggle. To do this, they had to jettison that embarrassing economic determinism. The game is surely up when Marxists start talking about 'the sacred.'
Very early in this century the effects of the encounter with Nietzsche began to be felt within Marxism. An example is the significance of revolution. Revolution and the violence that accompanies it are, as we have seen, justified in modern political philosophy and provide the most arresting spectacles of modern political history. Revolution took the place of rebellion, faction, or civil war, all of which are obviously bad things, while revolution is the best and greatest event—officially and in the popular imagination of Englishmen, Americans, Frenchmen and Russians. Germany was the only one of the great powers not to have had one, and Marxism was partly invented to provide a bigger and better revolution for Germany, the natural fulfillment of German philosophy, as French philosophy culminated in the French Revolution. Of course, the spilling of blood is involved in revolution, proof of men's preferring liberty to life. But great amounts of blood were not required, and the violence was not thought to be good in itself. The old regime was tottering and needed a push; behind it were the developed conditions for the new order, an order fully justified by nature, reason and history.
More recently, however, this has changed. The violence has a certain charm of its own, the joy of the knife. It proves decision or commitment The new order is not waiting, but has to be imposed by the will of man; it is supported by nothing but the will. Will has become the key word, both Right and Left. In the past it was, to be sure, thought that will is necessary but secondary—that the cause came first. Nietzsche formulated the new way most provocatively when he said, 'A good war makes sacred almost any cause.' The causes have no status; they are values. It is the positing that is essential. The transformation of violence from a means to at least a kind of end helps to show the difference, and the link, between Marxism and Fascism. Georges Sorel, the author of Reflections on Violence, was a man of the Left who influenced Mussolini. The crucial thought goes back to Nietzsche by way of Bergson: If creativity presupposes chaos—hence strife and overcoming—and man is now creating an order of peace in which there is no strife, is successfully rationalizing the world, the conditions for creativity, i.e., humanity, will be destroyed. Therefore chaos must be willed, as against the peace and order of socialism. Marx himself recognized that man's historical greatness and progress came from contradictions he had to struggle to overcome. If, as Marx promises, there are to be no more contradictions after the revolution, will there be man? Older revolutionaries were willing peace, prosperity, harmony and reason, i.e., the last man, The newer breed wills chaos. Hardly anyone swallowed what Nietzsche prescribed whole, but the argument was infectious. It surely was impressive to Italian and German intellectuals in whose eyes the Fascist and Nazi 'movements' found favor. Self-assertion, not justice or a clear view of the future, was the crucial element.
Thus determination, will, commitment, caring (here is where this now silly expression got its force), concern or what have you become the new virtues. The new revolutionary charm became evident in the U.S. in the sixties, much to the distaste of old Marxists. There is also something of this in the current sympathy for terrorists, because 'they care.' I have seen young people, and older people too, who are good democratic liberals, lovers of peace and gentleness, struck dumb with admiration for individuals threatening or using the most terrible violence for the slightest and tawdriest reasons. They have a sneaking suspicion that they are face to face with men of real commitment, which they themselves lack. And commitment, not truth, is believed to be what counts. Trotsky's and Mao's correction of Marx in calling for 'permanent revolution' takes account of this thirst for the act of revolution, and its appeal lies therein. The radical students of the sixties called themselves 'the movement,' unaware that this was also the language used by young Nazis in the thirties and was the name of a Nazi journal, Die Bewegung. Movement takes the place of progress, which has a definite direction, a good direction, and is a force that controls men. Progress was what the old revolutions were evidence of. Movement has none of this naive, moralistic nonsense in it. Motion rather than fixity is our condition—but motion without any content or goal not imposed on it by man's will. Revolution in our times is a mixture of what it was earlier thought to be and what Andre Gide called a gratuitous act, represented in one of his novels by the unprovoked and unmotivated murder of a stranger on a train.
The continuing effort of the mutant breed of Marxists has been to derationalize Marx and turn Nietzsche into a leftist, Nietzsche's colossal political failure is attested to by the facts that the Right, which was his only hope that his teaching would have its proper effect, has utterly disappeared, and he himself was tainted in its ugly last gasp, while today virtually every Nietzschean, as well as Heideggerian, is a leftist. Georg Lukacs, the most prominent Marxist intellectual of this century, set the ball rolling. As a young man in Germany, he frequented the circle of Stefan George as well as that of Max Weber and was aware of the power of the things being discussed there about history and culture. This affected his later work and made him take a look back toward the much richer Hegel, who, for older Marxists, had been simply superseded by Marx.
The mature Marx had almost nothing to say about art, music, literature or education, or about what the life of man would be when the yoke of oppression was lifted. His early 'humanistic' writings were looked to by some for the inspiration lacking in the later ones, but they turned out to be thin and derivative stuff. Since the Nietzscheans spoke so marvelously well about all these things, why not just appropriate what they said? So they took over 'the last man,' whom they identified with Marx's bourgeois, and "the superman/' whom they identified with the victorious proletarian after the revolution. The diminution of man and the impoverishment of his spiritual life as inimitably described by Nietzsche strengthened Marx's position, if one just believed that somehow or other capitalism was the cause of 'the last man' and that, with capitalism removed, new energies would be released. Radical egalitarianism is the cure for the evils of egalitarianism so marvelously portrayed by Nietzsche.
To take another example: Freud talked about interesting things not found anywhere in Marx. The whole psychology of the unconscious was completely alien to Marx, as was its inner motor, eros. None of this could be incorporated directly into Marx. But if Freud's interpretation of the cause of neuroses and his treatment of the maladjusted could itself be interpreted as bourgeois errors that serve enslavement to the capitalist control of the means of production, then Marx would move in on the Freudian scene. What Freud said were permanent contradictions between human nature and society could be set in motion dialectically, and in a socialist society there would be no need for the repression that causes neuroses. So Freud was neatly enrolled in the Marxist legions, adding to the charm of economics that of eros, and thereby providing a solution to the problem of what men are going to do after the revolution—a problem left unsolved by Marx. This is what we find in Marcuse and many others, who simply do not talk about the difficulty posed by the contradiction between Marx's fundamental principles and those of Freud. Two powerful systems are served up in a single package. Freud is the really meaty part of the concoction. Marx provides a generalized assurance that capitalism is indeed at fault and that the problems can be solved by more equality and more freedom, that the liberated people will possess all the virtues.
'The last man' interpretation of the bourgeois is reinforced by a certain ambiguity in the meaning of the word 'bourgeois.' Bourgeois is associated in the popular consciousness, especially in America, with Marx. But there is also the bourgeois as the enemy of the artists. The capitalist and the philistine bourgeois are supposed to be the same, but Marx presents only the economic side, assuming, without adequate warrant, that it can account for both the moral and esthetic deformities of the bourgeois described by the artists, and for the artists themselves. Doubt that this treatment of the bourgeois and the artist really works is one of the prime motives of those attracted to Nietzsche, whose central theme is the artist. As I have said many times and in many ways, most of the great European novelists and poets of the last two hundred years were men of the Right; and Nietzsche is in that respect merely their complement. For them the problem was in one way or another equality, which has no place for genius. Thus they are the exact opposite of Marx, But somehow he who says he hates the bourgeoisie can be seen to be a friend of the Left. Therefore when the Left got the idea of embracing Nietzsche, it got, along with him, all the authority of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary tradition. Goethe and Flaubert and Yeats hated the bourgeoisie—so Marx was right: these writers simply had not recognized that the bourgeoisie could be overcome by the proletariat. And Nietzsche, taken from the correct angle, can be said to be a proponent of the Revolution. When one reads the early Partisan Review, edited entirely by leftists, one sees its unlimited enthusiasm for Joyce and Proust, whom they were introducing to this country, apparently in the opinion that they represented the art of the socialist future, although these artists thought the future of art lay in the opposite direction.
The later Marxists in Germany were haunted by the idea of culture, repelled by the vulgarity of the bourgeoisie, and perhaps wondering whether they could still write out a blank check to culture in the socialist future. They wanted to preserve past greatness, of which they were much more conscious than their predecessors. Their Marxism had really shrunk back within the confines of the traditional hatred of the bourgeois, plus a vague hope that the proletariat would bring about cultural renewal or refreshment. One can easily see this in Adorno. But it is also easy to see that in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, too, the bourgeois is the real concern. The working-class Marxists still thought about surplus value and other such authentic Marxist concerns. The intellectuals were obsessed by culture and, as Leszek Kolakowski has so aptly pointed out, found themselves without a proletariat. This is why the students of the sixties were so welcome to many of them. But so were they to Heidegger. They reminded him of something.
It is well to point out, in addition, that as prosperity increased, the poor began to become embourgeoise. Instead of an increase in class consciousness and strife, there was a decrease. One could foresee a time, at least in the developed countries, when everybody would be a bourgeois. So another prop was knocked out from under Marxism. The issue is not really rich and poor but vulgarity. Marxists were coming perilously close to the notion that egalitarian man as such is bourgeois, and that they must join him or become culture snobs. Only an absolutely unsubstantiated dogma that the bourgeois worker is just an illness of our economic system and a product of false consciousness keeps them from saying, as did Tocqueville, that this is the nature of democracy and that you must accept it or rebel against it. Any such rebellion would not be Marx's revolution. One might be tempted to assert that these advanced Marxists are just too cultured for egalitarian society. They only avoid that recognition by calling it bourgeois.
In general, sophisticated Marxism became cultural criticism of life in the Western democracies, For obvious reasons it generally stayed away from serious discussion of the Soviet Union. Some of that criticism was profound, some of it superficial and petulant. But none of it came from Marx or a Marxist perspective. It was, and is, Nietzschean, variations on our way of life as that of 'the last man.'