The following is an excerpt from What Is Ideology? by Mark Shiffman (Wiseblood Books, July 2023). This excerpt was reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Ideology is compelled to distort reality and so is inherently dishonest and distorting of truth, and it is therefore inherently violent. It also naturally tends toward totalitarianism. But even if it does not attain totalitarian state authority, it has an insidious tendency to possess and transform the human being from the inside out. This is the tendency of ideology to destroy, with one’s own cooperation, the humanity or free personhood of those who adhere to it or are seduced by its view of the world, and to some extent even those intimidated into being collaborators. It is the tendency of ideological politics to turn human beings into instruments, not only through compulsion and intimidation, but through their own choice to behave and think according to its dictates.

The ideology substitutes its interpretive framework for the mind’s submission to a reality of complex particulars, competing goods, and a sometimes elusive order requiring humble interpreting. The discipline accepted and self-imposed by the adherent helps to continually force the mind into the narrow channel of the ideology’s logic. The intensity of the zealot comes from belief in the totality of the ideological vision, from enchantment by its hubristic assurance in its own capacity to draw the blueprint and marshal the power to create the world over in its image, from feeling like an empowered participant in its supplanting of God the Creator. This tendency inherent to ideological movements, regardless of how much coercive state power they have attained, is dramatically portrayed in one of the greatest of American novels, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Ellison’s anti-ideological novel was published in 1952, one year after Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. With the ideologies of Nazism and Fascism (what we might call ideologies of the right) fresh in the minds of those who fought against and defeated them, Ellison did not seem to see the need to respond to them. His narrator finds himself instead coming under the spell and domination of ideologies of the left, which is to say progressive ideologies. The first is the paternalistic philanthropic vision of wealthy white East Coast liberals who are trying to support the uplift of the suitably motivated black Americans into the industrial-commercial economic system making its comeback after the Great Depression. Booker T. Washington promoted this agenda, while W. E. B. DuBois criticized it as a bartering of one’s social, political, and intellectual dignity for an uncertain chance at economic dignity.

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After literally being ground up by the machinery in a factory, Ellison’s narrator, disillusioned with this vision of black economic striving, is recruited by an organization whose principles are recognizably Marxist to speak on behalf of its ideology and to organize its Harlem branch. . . .

The language of the Brotherhood carries verbal echoes of the liberal commercial progressivism it is attempting to overcome, but the words are given a more dehumanizing turn. A rich white philanthropist early in the book talks about the young narrator as a cog in the machine of his great project of organizing human life (according to the standards of advanced civilization). The Brotherhood brings him to the point of taking pride in being a cog in the machine that organizes human energies in the service of their physics-like science of history. The ideology of the Brotherhood explicitly maintains that individuals do not count in comparison to the historical process: they only serve to prepare the way for the humanity of the future, and so are politically meaningless in themselves. As the protagonist learns much too late, in both liberal and communist versions of progressive ideology the historical experiences of black Americans, with their particular cultural ideals and personal aspirations and indignities, do not matter except to the extent that they serve or can be made to serve the larger ideological agenda. Ideology renders their reality invisible.

Describing the height of his entrancement with the Brotherhood’s vision, Ellison’s narrator provides a succinct portrait of his ideological consciousness:

The world was strange if you stopped to think about it; still it was a world that could be controlled by science, and the Brotherhood had both science and history under control. Thus for one lone stretch of time I lived with the intensity displayed by those chronic numbers players who see clues to their fortune in the most minute and insignificant phenomena. . . . I was dominated by the all-embracing idea of Brotherhood. The organization had given the world a new shape, and me a vital role. We recognized no loose ends, everything could be controlled by our science. Life was all pattern and discipline; and the beauty of discipline is when it works. And it was working very well.

The contradiction between the depersonalization imposed by the Brotherhood and the richness and depth of human dignity and suffering comes to a head after the narrator witnesses the police shooting of a black comrade. The ideology claims all right to interpret the meaning of the life and death of this unique person—a person with whom the narrator seemed to be developing his first real friendship, until the organization, by compelling the narrator to act under the domination of the ideology and the discipline of the party, makes him complicit in this friend’s disappointment, frustration, and death.

As he conducts the funeral in Harlem, the narrator’s personal response finds expression only through resonance with the response of the black community, drawing upon its history of suffering and its Christian musical tradition. He suddenly finds himself chafing against the Brotherhood’s insistence on judging the feelings of the black multitude only in terms of whether they can or cannot be put to political use in the present moment. Before the funeral, the narrator had believed that “nothing lay outside the scheme of our ideology.” When the mourners find a unified voice for their grief in an old black spiritual about slavery and liberation, he recognizes that the song is able to say something to him “for which the theory of Brotherhood had given me no name.”

White progressive ideology cannot recognize the black American inflection of the human condition for what it is but can only force it into its own narrative. In Ellison’s view, however, this complex relationship of a historical experience and musical tradition to the mysteries of reality fares no better under the eye of black ideological thinkers. In his 1964 review of the book Blues People by LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Ellison expresses reservations about the author’s imposition of a social theory framework upon the blues tradition, combined with the “straining for a note of militancy” and the “dissonance of accusation” introduced by his political agenda. Ellison remarks:

Jones attempts to impose an ideology upon this cultural complexity . . . But his version of the blues lacks a sense of the excitement and surprise of men living in the world. … It is unfortunate that Jones thought it necessary to ignore the aesthetic nature of the blues in order to make his ideological point, for he might have come much closer had he considered the blues not as politics but as art.

The blues as art, according to Ellison, “speak to us simultaneously of the tragic and comic aspects of the human condition and they express a profound sense of life shared by many Negro Americans precisely because their lives have combined these modes.” They (like the Sorrow Songs drawn upon at the funeral in Invisible Man) are “part of a total way of life, and a major expression of an attitude toward life.”

Ellison suggests that a book like Blues People would be more illuminating if it were to develop this tragicomic sense of life as a counterpoise to the dominant American sensibility of optimism:

Perhaps more than any other people, Americans have . . .  fled the past and trained ourselves to suppress, if not forget, troublesome details of the national memory, and a great part of our optimism, like our progress, has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we’ve arrived at any given moment in our national existence.

Such inveterate forgetful optimism may itself offer fertile ground for ideological simplifications of reality, both economistic and nationalistic. For any adequate response to such tendencies, “the critical intelligence must perform the difficult task which only it can perform.” Racial identity channeled through ideological simplification only leads to the militant clash of ideologies, with no attentive connection to experienced reality providing a means of adjudication.

As Ellison indicates, ideological thinking, confident in its redemptive agenda and its theoretical reduction of reality, cannot acknowledge tragedy or comedy any more than it can the mystery and wonder of the given world. It cuts off access to these dimensions of shared experience, which would otherwise nourish critical intelligence by opening it onto complexity. As Arendt puts it, the adoption of ideological thought exchanges “the freedom inherent in man’s capacity to think for the strait jacket of logic with which man can force himself almost as violently as he is forced by some outside power. . . .

As Ellison renders more explicit, part of the intoxicating and animating zeal of this self-inflicted violence is the sense of exercising participatory agency in the great forward-moving force of redemptive history.

The attraction of subjecting oneself to ideological thought, then (as is suggested by both Dostoyevsky’s Demons and C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength), is a new form of something very old: the desire to escape the limitations and uncertainties of the human condition of knowledge and action by availing ourselves of a greater-than-human power. As in traditional tales of bargains with spirits and devils, while we think the superior source of knowledge and power is granting us greater freedom to achieve our desires and control our fate, we discover that the implicit terms of the agreement entail bargaining away our very humanity.

Public domain image: cropped and resized