“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e., the class which is the ruling material force in society is at the same time the ruling intellectual force.” Marx and Engels, The German Ideology
We sociologists know that each idea, each creative expression, each truth claim appears in a social context, and is very much influenced by its social context. We generally, though, add qualifications to Marx’s assertion in The German Ideology, appreciating some relative independence of culture from its embeddedness within a social formation. Nonetheless, we realize that text and context have to be understood together to make sense of how both a society and its culture works.
Or should I say a culture and its society?
Debates about this, between those who emphasize that the material structures of the political economy determine the situation, and those who emphasize that the dynamic development of culture, between the materialist against the idealist positions, persist in sociology. Included in the debate are those who try to work in between these radical positions. The debate also appears in public life as we debate the causes of poverty, racial and gender inequality, and educational outcomes, and commit ourselves to change things in one way or another. Which is more important for change: how we think or how we act? Is racism an attitude or a set of social practices, or some combination of the two?
These are fruitful debates. Ones that won’t and shouldn’t end. The debates reveal the dimensions of the problems and dilemmas we face. But as I have tried to understand the tragedies of the twentieth century, I have long been struck by how a dimension of the relationship between ideas and interests is missing. The relationship between culture and the powers of society is at times manufactured, creating a domain of the political correct, which has been at times deadly.
Lenin’s application of Marx’s idea about the German bourgeois ideology to a notion of a constructed proletarian ideology is a turning point. Lenin radicalized Marx and argued that all Party literature should serve the revolutionary cause. As this was developed, it led to the idea of a socialist ideology, as the official truth, cultivated by the important political position of the “Party Ideologist.” The relationship between power and cultural life was not simply an observed correlation, but an enforced project. The relationship came to be intimate and enforced by state power.
As I understand it, this was the new form of “the politically correct.” Its linguistic manifestation was newspeak, as illuminated by George Orwell. Whatever the Party declared the truth to be became the truth. One could not know the truth apart from the Party, the position of Trotsky cited by Hannah Arendt. She went so far as to maintain that this kind of political correctness, in the form of ideology and terror, the title of her final chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism, was definitive of totalitarianism.
I have thought and written about this for a long time. It is at the center of my only true expertise: in the opposition to a system that no longer exists, i.e., the democratic opposition to the the regimes of the former Soviet bloc. I have noted that the key component of a “post-totalitarian mind” was the break from newspeak. I observed that the invention of a new political culture that intentionally worked to distance cultural practices from political projects was characteristic of the culture of opposition to the totalitarian project, against the politically correct culture of the party state.
Considering the broad outline of this changing relationship between culture and power, of political culture, I think, can help us make sense of the peculiar cultural dimensions of the authoritarian political regimes and projects of our times.
Observe the pattern. A central characteristic of the totalitarian culture of the twentieth century was a special kind of political correctness. The party, both of the left and of the right, changed the relationship between truth and politics. The official ideology decided not only the correct interpretation of history, but also its facts. A key to all history, alternatively of class and race specifically, was found and then rationalized to explain the connection between past, present and the future. This truth monopoly led to cynicism: one day one truth, the next day another, depending upon immediate interests and concerns of the party leaders. “The politically correct” became “the politically convenient.” In the end, the broadly disbelieved rhetoric of official ideology was used to get on with daily concerns both of the most powerful and the relatively powerless, but as long as the rhetoric was used, the system continued to function, as Vaclav Havel illuminated in his powerful essay “The Power of the Powerless.”
I think it is notable that the twentieth first century tyranny starts where twentieth century tyranny leaves off, with cynicism. The façade of the true ideology has been abandoned, replaced by bundles of sentiment, and the assertion of absolute truth based on the sentiment. Instead of unified class and race theories purporting to be scientific, there is the certainty of anti-science. Political correctness is enforced, but without even an attempt at rational grounding.
Immigrants, refugees, football players, wind and solar power, abortion, Democrats, Wall Street, China and Russia, but also Western Europe and Canada—bad; the leader and his supporters, a conservative Supreme Court, anti-regulation, America first, Trump first, tax cuts, voter suppression, not so hidden racism, along with xenophobia, coal and petroleum—good: these are the package of Donald Trump’s “policies.” Along with the vilification of “the media” and of intellectual elites with their expertise, this is his appeal. Without intellectual coherence, it has emotional resonance. People who are suffering from, and bewildered by, contemporary economic, political and social developments support this regime, along with those who benefit from the economic policies who apparently are not paying attention to its seamy side.
Trump lies without embarrassment. If nothing else, this much is clear as he gives accounts of his various sexual and sexist scandals that surround him. He knows he exaggerates what he purports to see as fundamental truths, truthful hyperbole, he calls it, and he projects the hyperboles from himself onto others. His latest: the Russians are working for the Democrats in the upcoming elections. He knows and feels the grievance of many that the order of things has changed, white males no longer dominate as they once did, as U.S. hegemony no longer is what it once was. Thus, make America great again. A Democratic Party slogan doesn’t and can’t possibly compete, as Claire Potter notes this week.
Instead of an ideological map that dominates, he presents a reality TV script with competing contestants: heroes and villains, winners and losers. Its persuasive, powerful and convincing to a broad minority of the American population. Those on the racist, authoritarian fringes now have a leader. His tweets and his public statements, especially at rallies of his supporters, create and follow the script. In the twentieth century, the leaders presented grand narratives, purported to be scientifically grounded accounts of the sweep of history. Now the leader presents a reality TV script that the leaders and his supporters pretend to be “reality.”
To reiterate: this is where twentieth century totalitarianism ended. Demonstrations of the truth are not necessary, as it was in various party schools and institutes in the past. All that is needed is the assertion of the leader. He is an ideological leader based on feelings and not truth claims. Feeling and emotions are always a part of politics, but now they are radically independent of the pursuit of truth.
We sociologists of knowledge and culture are accustomed to puzzle over how what Marx and Engels observed came about: how it is that ways of knowing and even notions of the truth come to reflect ways of being and acting in the world, or to include Michel Foucault, how truth regimes come about. Now we struggle with a post-truth regime.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.