Ideology and politics at the Engelsberg Seminar
I ‘m just back in Stockholm from the Engelsberg Seminar in Avesta. This year the seminar’s theme was Politics and Ideology. Although a couple of very distinguished political science scholars and historians pressed home the idea that ideology is something very different from the everyday practise of “playing of politics,” in many discussions the two words were still used as mutually exchangeable concepts.
Well, they are not. Ideology is a set of beliefs that constitute distinct programs to mould and change human beings and nature to construct a better world for themselves and their fellow men and women. The non-religious search for a way that allowed human agency to create, if not exactly paradise, at least a better future for humanity during life on earth all began in the pre-enlightenment period in European history culminating with the French Revolution in 1789. The term ideology, however, was invented by Destutt de Tracy seven years later. Although many non-Europeans may (and perhaps should) contest the view that there existed no proper ideologies before Europe became a laboratory of competing ideas and thought from the Renaissance and onwards to the 1700s, and that they became imparted and forced upon the rest of the world only through colonialist oppression and hegemony in the following centuries.
To an extent this ethnocentric and Eurocentric view has to do with the definitions employed. Often core concepts in political science such as ideology can be better understood if dissected by other academic disciplines (and sometimes vice versa). As argued by the brilliant anthropologist Clifford Geertz in 1973, ideologies are not distinctive kinds of belief systems, as much as they are distinctive phases in the development of cultural systems.
A worldwide comeback of ideology
One of the participants, John Keane, from the University of Sydney argued that we are about to enter an era when ideology returns. He predicted the final demise of social democracy and the rise of the “greening” of politics. I have long viewed the politics of the last two decades as non-ideological, if you don’t interpret the so-called “war on terror” as a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations and the Bush doctrine to spread democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan as basically an ideological struggle between the ideals of open democracy and closed Muslim theocracy. At any rate, in the Western democracies election campaigns has focused mostly on management issues: what party, what coalition of parties can best deliver the most welfare to the people. The struggle for political power has been a fight for the middle class and center-right politics have been the recourse to take for parties left and right. The focus has been to grow the economy and perform well, to get elected. If the word ideology has been used, it has been employed in a rather feeble way as pointing back to party roots — not used to stake out claims for a new prosperous future based on those very ideals.
The return of ideology in China?
In China too – with its authoritarian political system and model of state capitalism which was discussed in the panel I was on together with Minxin Pei, Robert Kaplan, and Mark Leonard – the mainstream of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 focused on keeping the fringe forces of rightist liberals and leftist conservatives at bay. Deng Xiaoping always maintained, actually from 1978 and onwards, that a pragmatist center solution was the only way China could go – to avoid useless struggle and instead grow the economy for the benefit of all. Yet, the 1980s was a period filled with struggles about what was the correct weltanschauung for a modernizing China. Ostensibly, the overarching battle was between the forces of conservative Marxist-Leninists and authoritarian capitalist-pragmatists.
“Red culture” for the party or for society
During the last two years, 2009-2011, the nostalgic flirting with Maoism 1960s-style by Politburo member-in-waiting, Chongqing Mayor, former Minister of Trade, princeling Bo Xilai has caught the attention by both domestic Chinese and international media. Other party intellectuals, apparatchiks, and leaders have turned their eyeballs to the period before the most disastrous period of Maoist upheaval, terror, and human suffering. They look to the 1930s for ideological guidance, to lit the torch that will guide party central in the years ahead. This all seems natural, since the truth and wisdom must always be sought within the party. To search outside party perimeters is inherently hazardous for an elitist grouping such as a Leninist party. It would be bad for the cultivated identity as the self-appointed guardianship role of Chinese society and send out the wrong signals to the locked-in public sphere. But how much of this trend of looking back into the history of the CCP is really a return of ideology – after decades of Dengist pragmatism – or just playing poker in the run-up to the 2012 party congress? Arguably, it is very much about 玩政治, i.e. playing politics. However, the tapping into the pool of concepts, ideas, and lived experience of Chinese political history today is revealing. Quests of an ideological nature do take place during times of uncertainty — of that we can be sure.