Theory and Ideology

by Alvin Gouldner

It seems to me that theorists, intellectuals, or scholars who engage in some form of a political praxis that brings them into abrasive opposition to established society, and who attempt to change some part of the social world in an emancipating way, achieve a different and penetrating understanding of their social world. Other things being equal, they can, I believe, see certain things not seen by other scholars whose political praxis differs. The value of a radical political praxis, then, is not problematic here, so long as it is understood that this value is not simply the automatic 'response' to an action‑stimulus but must be mediated by reflection upon that experience. As Flacks says also, ‘. . . activist modes of knowing are themselves limited.'

The problem, as I see it, is a two‑sided one: of enhancing the value of theory for practice and, no less, of practice for theory. Flacks has spoken of the first side of the equation; let me now say a few things about the second. That is, under what conditions is political practice more intellectually and theoretically productive? This brings us to the problem of how the relations of radical theorists and of political groups ought to be arranged so as to ensure that the theorists' work will be deepened.

Jürgen Habermas has suggested that we might conceive of 'ideology' as arising when rational discourse breaks down and, indeed, that it is a way of concealing (and accommodating to) this breakdown. A prior question is also relevant: Why does rational discourse break down? Here we will mention only that this may happen when interests stifle discourse. That is, rational discourse is disrupted when it threatens the interests of the speakers, and it needs to be understood how very diverse these interests may be. Ideology, then, may be related to rational discourse on two levels: first as a kind of fraudulent discourse, a kind of counterfeit rationality that conceals the breakdown of rationality, on the one hand, and, also, as a concealment of the very forces that led to this breakdown, on the other. Ideology is thus both discourse‑relevant and interest‑relevant.

In contrast to ideology we counterpose 'theory'. Social theory is rational discourse about the social world in that, on one level, it is deliberately seeking to advance certain interests in the world; it knows the interests that it advances, and provides an extraordinary language for rational discourse concerning these interests. On another level, social theory provides—as do Marxism or Freudianism—an extraordinary language with which men can become aware of the ideological usages of ordinary languages, and of the interests that these obscure and conceal. Theory, then, always has two sides: an establishing and affirming side, and an unmasking and polemical side. In one part, social theory seeks to say what is about the social world and, in another, it relates to ideologies about the social world, disclosing their meaning. A proper relation between theory and praxis, then, is not only one that advances praxis, but one that also advances theory as distinct from ideology.

The political praxis and involvement open to a social theorist will differ substantially with the kind of political groupings and organizations with which he is involved and to which he allows himself to be attached. In this connection, Paul Breines has made an interesting suggestion, namely, that ideology 'seeks to legitimate a particular organization, sect, or state power' and presumably, that social 'theory' does not. Here the point seems to be whether the intellectual's attachment has a particularistic character. In other words, it is one thing to be attached to, say, the interests of the working class and, quite another, to be committed to a particular political party or grouping which is always one among a number claiming to represent this larger interest.

We might formulate the issue by saying that there is a difference between 'partisanship' and 'commitment', partisanship being attachment to a party or 'part' of the larger interest, while commitment is an attachment to the larger interest itself and lends support only contingently to the various parties, depending on their policies and positions, rather than being an unqualified commitment to the organization itself.

The formulation of the Communist Manifesto, on the question of the attachment of Communists, is relevant to this issue: 'The Communists are distinguished from other working‑class parties by this only: they point out and bring to the fore the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality . . . they always and everywhere represent the interest of the Movement as a whole . . .' This suggests clearly that, in Marx's and Engels' view, the Communists were not a party like others, precisely in that theirs was not a partisan attachment to any organizational form, but only to the working class beyond it and to that class as a whole.

One of the things that happened in the history of the working class and of Communism is that this soon ceased to be the case. It had been true of Marx and Engels themselves, in part because their own organizational partisanship and party involvements were relatively peripheral. Marx and Engels never played a role as full‑time political leaders of party organizations (successful or not), in the manner of say, Kautsky, Lenin or Mao. In large measure, they themselves were not primarily active leaders of mass working‑class organizations or elite vanguards. For the most part, they served as intellectual 'consultants' to the emerging German Social Democrats and other working-class parties in Europe. Doubtless the only thing that today protects Marx and Engels from being denounced by certain misguided activists as hypocritical 'professors, intellectuals and idealists' whose political praxis is at variance with their theory, is that such activists are often unaware of how Marx and Engels actually spent most of their days and years, and, indeed, of how many of these were spent in the libraries of Europe, or at home, reading and writing, and for great stretches at a time, doing 'merely' theoretical work.

Today there are few or no Communists, in the sense intended by Marx and Engels, precisely because most of those who think themselves such are deeply implicated in political groups that demand primary loyalty to themselves rather than to the working class, and whose definition of what is in the interest of the working class as a whole turns out, conveniently and marvellously, never to be at variance with the interests of their own political party.

It is my general view that the theoretical and intellectual creativity of Marxists increase, other things equal, if they have made commitments rather than partisan attachments, if their primary commitment is to values rather than factions, to the broader Movement rather than to sectarian Party, if they have attached themselves to certain larger social strata, such as the working class or peasantry, to whose interests and whose 'Movement' they are primarily committed, and if they do not submit to the discipline of a particular party, sect or organization, in arriving at a definition of what the common interest of this social stratum is. Frequently, 'editorial boards' have served as de facto collectives of theorists that have insulated their members from party pressures. Parties or sects require loyalty primarily to themselves quite apart from their furtherance of a larger social stratum's interest and quite apart from the group's loyalty to rational discourse. And parties and sects will, with uncontrollable false consciousness invariably, vigorously, and bitterly deny that this is what they do.

It is precisely because a political organization has an interest that is invariably distinct and special, and is not reducible to the interests of the strata that it claims to represent, it is because it acquires a special interest even as it claims that it has no special interests, that such groups invariably foster an ideologization—a false consciousness—that undermines the rationality of discourse within them. It is this interest that generates ideology and undermines theory in political groups. Not that this is the only source of ideology in such political groups, but it is a necessary, inevitable and irreducible source of it. Which is another reason why theorists must have their own collectives.

In general, then, the creative development of theory is more likely to occur when the theorists are related primarily to a diffuse movement rather than to a sharply boundaried loyalty-demanding organization. This is exactly why the Critical School of Frankfurt was such a creative turning for Marxist theory. For, despite ambiguities in the political involvements of its members, the very existence of the Critical School itself served, if nothing else, as a counterbalance to whatever Leninist party attachments existed. That the Leninist tradition came to insist that 'its' intellectuals be tightly involved in the party structure and come under party discipline has been a major source of the ideologization of the Marxist movement, of the false consciousness of Marxist culture, and one of the fundamental organizational obstacles to the theoretical development of Marxism. Stalinism was only the grotesque intensification of the development that had preceded it.

One of the most common sources of false consciousness in all modern radical movements is the distortion of the actual relations they have with theorists and intellectuals. On the one hand, activists often tend to deprecate the worth of the intellectual's performance and the authenticity of his political practice, and they seek to expose his intellectual work to the ideologization of organizational interest. In other words, to what they call 'discipline'. While some activists may deprecate the importance of theoretical work—in contrast to really `practical' contributions—at the same time they seek to bring theory under control, thus contradicting that very deprecation. Much of the critique of theory and of intellectuals in such movements essentially consists of a critique of open intellectuals by covert intellectuals who play the role of party leaders and organizational functionaries. In other words, it is often to be understood as a conflict among different kinds of intellectuals. In particular, it is an attack on those intellectuals who have a political and intellectual base in some segment of the larger intellectual world, and who are therefore less controllable by those lacking this outside base. One recurrent technique for the control of the outside intellectual by the functionary is the latter's call for the 'unity of theory and praxis', which may sometimes only mean the subordination of theory to praxis, and of the theorist to the functionary.

Most falsified of all is the relation between intellectuals and the larger social strata they claim to represent. It is precisely because of the self‑hatred and suspicion—partly pathological, partly realistic and justified—directed toward intellectuals, by themselves and by others, and partly because they are not supposed to be acting on their own behalf but only on behalf of some larger social stratum, that it becomes enormously difficult for anyone to see the role that intellectuals actually do play. In some part, intellectuals are involved in a radical politics not only—and sometimes, not primarily—because they want to further the interests of some other social strata, but, also, because intellectuals need a 'client‑group' in order to further their own special interests.

Intellectuals and theorists do have certain special interests, among them are interests in furthering culture. They also have a vital interest in extending rational discourse and in establishing the social conditions that foster this. That they may seek to further the interests of larger social strata is sometimes simply because they assume that these strata will, by 'abolishing' themselves, abolish all impediments to culture and to reason. For radical intellectuals, even the interest of a larger social stratum such as the working class, is not an end in itself but a means to rationality and culture.

Marx said, 'Philosophy is the head of emancipation, and the proletariat is the heart.' But it takes a great deal of fancy theoretical footwork—in short, of ideology and false consciousness—to assume that the head and heart of politics are always integrated and have identical interests. Indeed, much of the discussion among Marxists today, concerning the failure of the proletariat as an historical force thus far, is in effect a discussion about the possibility of a 'heart‑transplant'; that is, of replacing the proletariat with another historical actor: e.g., students, blacks, third‑world forces, etc. Intellectuals are capable of being an autonomous political force and when one social group does not play the role they have assigned to it, when it fails in its 'historical responsibility', intellectuals will often shop around for another client group to 'represent'. False consciousness is generated when the special, vested interests of intellectuals are deemed illegitimate and are therefore concealed, and when intellectuals feel they must pretend to be representatives of another group's interests.

Stated positively, what follows is a conception of the role of the radical social theorist (I am not speaking of intellectuals in general) and of his relation to a radical politics that I, at any rate, would encourage.

(1) The theorist as theorist should commit himself to the establishment of his own social collectivity, to know intellectually and to create practically the conditions requisite for rational discourse and human liberation, and within whose protection he and his fellows work toward the understanding of the concrete social totality with which they are historically faced. A 'theorist' is simply one who takes this as his primary human and political commitment, and his own primary way of contributing to human fulfilment. (An 'intellectual' we might say is a theorist who is actively interested in mobilizing and wielding power.)

(2) Theorists should positively seek out involvements with and on behalf of specific social strata and contribute to them and to social movements representing them in practical political ways, especially (and indeed, only) insofar as these strata are evolving in directions compatible with human emancipation.

(3) Theorists should engage themselves politically in ways that bring them into tension, conflict, opposition and resistance to established authority, institutions and culture, for these help them to escape from conventional definitions of social reality.

(4) The relations between theorists, on the one hand, and movements or parties, on the other, should be governed by the principle that each is autonomous of the other organizationally, but collaborate on the basis of their common commitment to human emancipation. Theorists should not wait to be asked for intellectual work or assistance by these groups, but should take initiatives in providing them. This should be done, however, without insisting on the political group's use and, acceptance of, or commitment to, the theoretical collectives' work. Theorists should seek no power, no office and no leadership in political groups, and they should reject full‑time political roles. Their primary engagement should be to their own theoretical collectivities, and if they undertake practical leadership roles in political groups they should resign their membership in their theoretical collectivity.

(5) Whatever their other political attachments, theorists should never submit to the discipline of any specifically political party or organization that believes itself entitled to discipline him on the basis of his intellectual products or work—that is, to control him as theorist, or to expel him from membership, on the basis of disagreement with his intellectual or theoretical work. That judgement should reside only in his own theorists' collective.

It is assumed that if theorists are doing work of value to movements, the latter will inform themselves about it, will use it as far as possible, and will have valuable critical reactions to their experiences with its use. It must also be assumed, however, that if political movements take no interest in the theoretical work being produced by the theoretical collectivity it is either because this work is not or is not seen as relevant, or because such political movements have been corrupted by anti‑intellectualism or irrationalism. In the first case, it is the responsibility of the theoretical collectivity to re‑examine the character of its intellectual work. In the second case there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the political movement and the theoretical collectivity. In this event the theoretical collectivity should consider modifying its political associations, withdrawing from political interaction with such irrational groups, and in any event making public its critique of them. But under no conditions should the theoretical collectivity enter into an internal struggle within the political group to correct the line it has taken.

My insistence on the maintenance of institutionalized distance between theorists and party activists may seem very un‑Marxist to some Marxists. Actually, it is not un‑Marxist; it is merely un‑Leninist. If one acknowledges that Engels was no less a Marxist than Lenin, then it is important to note that Engels insisted on the maintenance of the theorist's intellectual autonomy from Party controls. Thus in a series of letters to August Bebel (Briefe an Bebel, Berlin, D.D.R., 1958) Engels complained about the effort of the party press to suppress an article he had written for it; warned them that 'no party can condemn me to silence if I have decided to speak', insisted that 'socialist science' cannot exist without 'freedom of discussion', expressed resentment at intellectual dependence on even a worker's party; and acknowledged that 'it is a barren position for anyone with initiative to be the editor of a party journal. Marx and I always agreed that we would never accept such a position and could only work for a journal financially independent even of the Party itself ' (18 November 1892). Engels, then, had no doubts about the importance of maintaining the autonomy of socialist theorists and he recognized that their autonomy, and the value of theory they produced, was threatened not merely by 'capitalist society' but also by the socialist party itself. For Engels, then, the 'unity of theory and practice' clearly entailed the rejection of any idea that this meant the subordination of theory to party activists or party committees.

SOURCE: Gouldner, Alvin W. For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today (New York: Basic Books, 1973), chapter 4, “The Politics of the Mind”(82-127), section titled “Theory and Ideology”, pp. 115-123. 

Note: As explained more fully on p. 464, this article is an expanded version of an essay originally published in Social Policy, March/April 1972. Footnote 20 has been excised from this extract.

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