view, is ideological in a general sense: all nationalists use beliefs to galvanise their
followers into action around a state but the particular values that they adopt differ
significantly, and invariably one finds one nationalism in collision with another.
The African National Congress sees South Africa as a country that is mostly
inhabited by blacks but in which there is a significant white minority: the old
National Party (now dissolved) saw South Africa as a white country and sought
through apartheid to give black Africans homelands in separate states. Both are or
were nationalist: but their nationalism had a very different political content.
All political movements that seek to run the state are ideological in character,
since we define ideologies as belief systems that focus on the state. Even movements
that claim to reject ideology are ideological nevertheless, if this is what they do.
Mannheim’s paradox: are we stuck?
Karl Mannheim wrote a classic book in 1929 entitled Ideology and Utopia
(Mannheim, 1936). In this work, he raised an intriguing problem. Can we talk
about ideology without being ideological ourselves? After all, if ideologies arise
because of a person’s social context, then is not the critique of ideology also
situationally influenced, so that the critic of ideology is himself ideological?
Mannheim was conscious that the term ideology was often regarded as a pejorative
one, so that he sometimes substituted the word ‘perspective’ when he talked about
the way in which a person’s social position influences the ideas they adopt
(McLellan, 1995: 39).
Mannheim’s argument raises very sharply the question as to whether we should
define ideologies negatively or positively. If, as is common, we identify ideologies
as negative bodies of thought, then we identify them as dogmas, authoritarian
thought constructs that distort the real world, threats to the open-minded and
tolerant approach that is crucial to democracy. Yet the negative definition seems
naive, because it implies of course that while our opponents are ideological, we are
not. The dogma expelled through the front door comes slithering in through the
back, since the implication of a negative view of ideology might be that while
ideologists distort reality, we have the truth! This seems not only naive, but also
uncritical and absolutist.
On the other hand, a purely positive or non-judgemental view of ideology raises
problems of its own. Supposing we insist that all ideas and movements are equally
ideological, how do we avoid what philosophers call the problem of relativism?
This is the idea that all ideas are of equal merit. There are a number of dictums –
‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’, ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’,
etc. – that suggest that it is impossible to declare that one’s own views are right
and another’s wrong. If all belief systems are ideological, does this imply that all
are equally valid? After all, which of us can jump out of our skin, our time and
place, and escape the social conditions that cause us to think one way rather than
another? A relativist view of ideology has at least two problematic consequences.
The first is that it prevents us from ‘taking sides’. Supposing we are confronted
by a Nazi stormtrooper dragging a Jewish child to be gassed in a concentration
camp. Each has their own set of values. A purely positive view of ideology might
What is ideology? 167