Stalin’s funeral procession (1953) | Martin Manhoff / Public domain

The twilight of the Soviet Union marked more than the demise of a major global superpower. It also marked a major paradigm shift for one of the most prominent ideologies of the last century: Marxism. When the dust settled after Stalin’s death, new types of Marxist and leftist movements fragmented in many different directions. Among the many reckonings this phenomenon induced was a reckoning, not merely with Marxism—but with the process of ideology-making itself.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1956, a conception of a “New Left” arose in Western Europe and the United States. The New Left, according to Carl Oglesby, was “properly so called because it had to overcome the memories, the certitudes, the promises of the Old Left.” At the time in which Oglesby wrote this, left-wing internationalism had been facing a crisis of identity, much of which was tied to where it would position itself ideologically. In A Foreign Policy for the Left, Michael Walzer characterized this struggle in terms of its relation to the Marxist principle of worker solidarity. His stipulation that “left internationalism used to mean … the unity of ‘the workers of the world’” created the pretext for his later observation that “in the last four decades of the twentieth century, left internationalism acquired another meaning: not support for the workers but support for the victims of imperialism.” 

How ideology fits into this will very much depend on what we mean when we say “ideology.” As Marx and Engels explained in The German Ideology, “ideology” refers to “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of their dominance.” For Marx and Engels, “ideologies” all represented a form of false consciousness, unlike the social-scientific critical theories they offered as an alternative.  

In the early twentieth century, Karl Mannheim offered a different definition, contrasting utopian systems (and Mannheim thought Marxism was one) to “ideology” redefined as “an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality,” as Daniel Bell summed up the mainstream sociological concept: “It is a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole of a way of life.” For Mannheim, the problem with Marx and Engels was that their definition of ideology assumed they had a monopoly on truthfulness.

Our contemporary understanding of Marxism would certainly qualify it as a “total ideology,” under the Mannheim redefinition. So too is it necessary to uncover the dominant material relationships by which the ruling idea (Marxism) was expressed. This in turn will depend on how we see a link between Marxian ideology and the Soviet political program coming into view.

To move towards that end, I will bring to the fore the work of Zbigniew Jordan (1911–1977), a Polish philosopher and sociologist. Jordan’s research approached this exact question, examining arguments that had emerged at the forefront of Poland’s newly unrestrained academia. As Jordan writes, many scholars in Poland at the time had dismissed any attempts to explain Stalin’s behavior as entirely his own responsibility as sociologically insufficient. More importantly, the failures of the Soviet Union led him to correctly predict a scenario in which “the question of truth and the falsity of ideological beliefs, that is, the disparity between words and deeds, ideals and reality, grows so wide that it cannot be ignored any longer.”

The notion that skepticism towards ideological practice had been tied to Soviet authoritarianism resonated with a position advanced by Aleksander Hertz (1895–1983) in “Notes on Ideology: End or Crisis?” In this essay, Hertz argues that critiques of ideology were above all an emotional reaction to the “bestialities of Stalinism and Nazism.” Reviewing, in brief, the arc of history, this seemed natural. Plato’s allegory of the cave is a useful allusion here, as academics, like Hertz, emerging from these authoritarian systems began to openly and fiercely question the ideologies to which they had been forcibly subjected. 

Hertz called this process one of “practical verification.” He wrote that “a crisis of an ideology sets in as soon as that ideology is subjected to verification.” In Poland, that process gained traction in 1954 and 1955 through the work of Józef Chałasiński—a founding member of the Polish Sociological Association. He saw fault with the Marxian attempt to create a universal truth on which to base its ideological claims. In his essay on Marxist Revisionism, Jordan credited Chałasiński with “initiating the critical evaluation of Marxism-Leninism and … exposing the “tragic consequences” of ignorance, stagnation, and sterility brought about by its claim to the monopoly of truth.” Marxism’s claim to the monopoly of truth is the most important feature by which it was heavily scrutinized after Stalin’s death— and it will inform the basis for this critique going forward.

But first: What exactly are the universalizing claims that Marxism posits for consideration? Perhaps the most ubiquitous is the oft-quoted beginning of his essay on “Bourgeois and Proletariat,” where he thunderously proclaimed that “the history of all human society has been the history of class struggle.” It was the basis upon which Marx reasoned that workers around the world ought to unite across national boundaries to advance this presumably shared interest, which Walzer called “proletarian internationalism.” Proletarian internationalism, according to Walzer, rested on three assumptions: that “whenever the working class has its own agencies of cultural production, it will produce and reproduce proletarian internationalism”; that “[proletarian internationalism] is [presumed to be] the “correct ideological position” [which] requires no political or moral defense;” and that “if the working class isn’t internationalist, the problem must be “false consciousness”—the distortions produced by religious indoctrination, state education, and the capitalist media.”

The Marxist-Leninist claim to universal truth generated more critiques than that offered by Karl Mannheim in 1929. Many Polish academics in the post war period followed Karl Popper in arguing that universalist social programs were inevitably conducive to authoritarian political corruption and that the assumptions made by Marx were unscientific—either unfalsifiable or, if subject to skeptical scrutiny, found to be false rather than true. 

Jordan for one observed that “the ascendancy of Marxism-Leninism collapsed and vanished into thin air … [due at first to] the widely felt repugnance at the crimes and oppression of the totalitarian system.” This observation later would later lead Polish academics to a “search for [a deeper cause for this oppression which] located [it] in the principles of Marxism-Leninism.” This, to Jordan, was made evident by the proliferation of “incontrovertible truths” and “correct views” such as that “there can be no creative Marxism [that goes] against the ideological principle of the Party policy.” 

At this point, it seems prudent to ask the big question asked by Daniel Bell: Did the horrors of Stalinism mean “the end of ideology” as a useful way of approaching the world? Daniel Bell certainly thought so. However, I will conclude by arguing that Bell was wrong.

In the twentieth century, authoritarian regimes thrived on the promise that they had the grand answer, that only they could bring utopia. Obviously, hindsight has proven that promise to be resoundingly false. But on what basis should an alternative be grounded? It was in this context that Mannheim offered his redefinition of “ideology” as “an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality,” a worldview that could inspire social change without unscientific and utterly utopian assumptions. 

Interestingly, Vaclav Havel, an anti-Soviet activist from the Velvet Revolution in the 1980s, believed in the power of a new approach to social change that sought “to address not the totalitarian power but an independent public … [to] help people to think about how to behave, and not how to help the powers that be to reform themselves.” It was a response that did not preclude the spread of new ideologies. It did not even preclude the perpetuation of socialism. It only demanded that both conform to a new existence under an open, democratic pretext. This is fitting, for nothing about this critique should be understood as a critique of socialism—only the notion of its universality.

I think Havel and Mannheim were right. But two historical lessons ought to be drawn here. No ideology should be permitted to lay claim to a “monopoly of truth,” as was too often the case under the Marxist despots of our recent history. And the best practices through which to develop and facilitate ideological life consist of earnest negotiation, intense scrutiny, and open exchange, as befits a healthy democratic society.