Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: IS LIBERALISM AN IDEOLOGY? - The Liberal Mind
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II.: IS LIBERALISM AN IDEOLOGY? - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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IS LIBERALISM AN IDEOLOGY?
In discussing liberalism, we must at least initially assume that it is a single entity. This is not to suggest that there is a pure essence of liberalism, nor need it impel us towards the fruitless pastime of seeking to isolate “true liberalism” from a collection of counterparts.
In many respects, we may immediately say that liberalism is not a single entity. We are accustomed at present to referring to both the Liberal and the Labor Party in Britain, to the Democratic Party in the United States, and to similar parties elsewhere as being “liberal.” Each of these parties has legislated policies which can also be described as welfarist and socialist, and each would repudiate large areas of what was understood as liberal doctrine in earlier centuries. In order to talk at all of liberalism as one movement we must relegate socialism to the technical area of means and devices, and include it within liberalism as part of a continuing debate about the utilitarian political objectives of improving society and maximizing the happiness of individuals. There are indeed some people for whom socialism is itself a dogma, held with a tenacity that no political event or moral experience could possibly shake; but this kind of feeling is not common among English and American socialists, most of whom would support a more experimental attitude to social reform. There was a time not so long ago when political debate was polarized in terms of “free enterprise or a planned economy,” but this polarization has now virtually disappeared from the political scene; the main battlegrounds of propaganda now lie elsewhere.
Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between “classical liberalism” and “modern liberalism” since the former was far more radically individualist than the latter. Part of the fascination exerted by the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill arises from the fact that the tension between these two positions is unusually explicit in his work. Since his time, classical liberalism, distinguished by its uncompromising hostility to governmental regulation, has steadily declined. But it remains wherever such questions as freedom of speech or bureaucratic iniquity arise, and also in a lingering suspicion of governments aroused whenever the State is called into new areas of regulations.
The unity which allows us to discuss liberalism over the last few centuries as a single and continuing entity is intellectual; we are confronted with a single tradition of thought, whose method is intermittently empirical, whose reality is found in the concept of the individual, and whose ethics are consistently utilitarian. This tradition of thought has its own vocabulary and can generate its own enthusiasm. In dealing with such a tradition of thought, we are dealing with an abstraction; there is no single person of whom it can be said: he was a liberal pure and simple, though perhaps John Stuart Mill would be a guide to what such a person might be like. Liberal intellectuals draw upon other traditions; and liberal politicians, simply because they are politicians, cannot be consistently liberal. This necessary inconsistency results from the fact that liberalism is an ideology, and all ideologies are incoherent.
The term “ideology” is vague and often abusive. Its main usefulness as an alternative to “doctrine” is that it usually incorporates a reference to a social location which is thought either to have originated or at least to sustain the set of ideas composing the doctrine. The description of a set of interrelated ideas as an ideology consequently carries the aggressive implication that the ideology is a rationalization of various political interests; for which reason there is a strong prima facie suggestion that many of the assertions of an ideology are false.
The conception was first extensively developed by Marx and Engels. “Every ideology,” Engels wrote, “once it has arisen, develops in connection with the given concept-material, and develops this material further; otherwise it would not be an ideology, that is, occupation with thoughts as with independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own laws.”3 Here the source of error in ideologies is seen in the original concept formation, when distinctions arose in accordance with the distorting activity of social conditions.
Of what intellectual use is the theory? The value it had for Marx and Engels is perfectly clear. It was a superb debunking tactic. A long and impressive line of moralists, philosophers, theologians, legal theorists, thinkers of all kinds, were summarily dragged from their pedestals and attached to the ideological lanterne. Their subtle arguments were revealed as elaborate rationalizations of the social forms in which they lived. The majestic pronouncements of abstract reason turned out to be the flowery rhetoric which concealed the demands of the exploiting class.
If liberalism is an ideology in this sense, then we ought to be able to supply it with a social location. What then is its social base? One common solution would be to nominate “the bourgeoisie” as the promoters of liberalism; but, though plausible, this answer presents many difficulties. It might mean either that all liberals are bourgeois, or that all bourgeois are liberals, or that liberalism consistently supports the interests of the bourgeois social class. Yet each of these propositions, however much one may try to reduce its vagueness, is false. One of the difficulties lies in trying to discover exactly who constitute the middle class. Rentiers? Share owners? People with inherited wealth? Those whose earnings are within a certain income range? Professional people? Many definitions are possible, but none will pull off the trick of demonstrating an empirical connection between liberalism and the bourgeoisie, for liberalism has, over the centuries, provoked both support and opposition from a great variety of kinds of people—aristocrats, country gentry, merchants, radicals, intellectuals, trade unionists and so on.
Given that there is no consistent relation between social class and the holding of liberal (or any other) doctrine, the sociological concept of ideology may be salvaged in one of two ways, neither very satisfactory. One way is a retreat into metaphysics: the bourgeoisie (or any other chosen social entity) as such has produced liberal doctrine to support its interests, but given the complexities of real situations, this does not alone allow us to argue that if X is a bourgeois, then he is also a liberal. Alternatively, one may have recourse to the democratic technique of statistics, and attempt to discover the correlation between being a bourgeois and holding liberal opinions. Those who reject these alternatives may go scurrying off in the other direction and create a sociology of knowledge. Having firmly grasped the principle that all doctrines have social circumstances and must rub shoulders with economic conditions, they may conclude that all thinking is ideological. This refurbished pragmatism, resting upon the concept of ideology, manages only to destroy the usefulness of the concept.
So far as the social relations of doctrines are concerned, it is the notion of activity rather than that of class which may help to explain some of the features of an ideology. For the idea of social class never quite manages to purge itself of reliance upon the relationship of possession; and knowing how much individuals possess tells us very little about their feelings and opinions. A few commonsense maxims—the rich are conservative, the poor radical—are sometimes serviceable, but they have been known to bring disaster even where they are most at home—that is, in politics. Intellectually, they are next to valueless. What can, however, be said of an ideology such as liberalism is that it has grown up within a particular cultural tradition, and that it has borrowed characteristics from some of the activities carried on within that tradition. It has been especially associated with the development of science, and with the politics of reform which have grown in the Anglo-Saxon world. But as far as political and economic interests are concerned, we may think of liberalism as a train, likely to transpose its carriages at any moment, and stopping periodically to allow people to get on and get off.
An ideology may therefore be defined as a set of ideas whose primary coherence results not from their truth and consistency, as in science and philosophy, but from some external cause; most immediately, this external cause will be some mood, vision, or emotion. The psychological mark of ideological entrapment is the feeling of despair which accompanies the prospect of defeat in argument. Ideologies seek to avoid such painful experiences by framing their key utterances in a vague or tautological form, in order to make these propositions impregnable. The intellectual mark of ideology is the presence of dogma, beliefs which have been dug deep into the ground and surrounded by semantic barbed wire. In addition, ideologies incorporate some kind of general instructions about behavior—ideals or value-judgments, as they would commonly be called.
In this sense, liberalism is clearly an ideology, and one whose examination might be expected to be particularly useful. For at the present time most of us are, in some degree or other, liberal. It is only the very cynical, the unassailably religious, or the consistently nostalgic who have remained unaffected. Many liberal opinions therefore seem so obvious as to be unquestionable: liberalism invites argument and appears, with some justice, to be more open to reason than other ideologies. Nevertheless, its ideological roots are buried very deep, in an understanding of the world of whose bias we are hardly aware. Our concern, then, is to investigate liberalism as an ideology. It is neither to praise nor bury it, but to consider what might be called its intellectual and emotional dynamics.
The Anatomy of Liberalism
[3. ]Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, p. 360.