Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

1

Political ideologies insubstance and method

Appraising a transformation

Michael Freeden


Developments and disputes

The advent of a new millennium has been a good excuse for much taking of stock, and this volume takes advantage of that opportunity to direct a retrospective, and a tentatively prospective, eye at some of the major ideological currents of the past century, and to assess them in line with current scholarly understandings. In this introduction I have not followed the conventional practice of commenting on the subsequent chapters. That commentary is proffered at the end of the book, in the form of several second-order thoughts. Readers may quite properly prefer to permit the various contributors to speak first for themselves, savouring their multifarious and reflective arguments to which no commentary can do justice. The basic approach shared by all of the contributors is to locate ideologies at the heart of the political process, constituting as they do a mainstay of the art of politics, and to recognize that their colossal impact on the course of past and present events requires their detailed analysis from a viewpoint that is fundamentally sympathetic rather than hostile to their natures and roles. As vehicles of dissent ideologies are an indispensable resource for the intelligent conducting and re-inventing of politics in its variegated forms. As families of political thought displaying clear consensual patterns and continuities, ideologies are a vital and energizing ingredient in the fashioning of group identities and policies. In both these forms they are scarcely a flash in the pan but a durable and ineliminable facet of social life, at once creative and consolidating.

Some years ago, Karl Dietrich Bracher wrote a book about twentieth-century political thought entitled The Age of Ideologies. 1 That title summons up a couple of diverse questions: to what extent has that been the case and, alternatively, can we now imagine an age without ideologies? Bracher had a particular conception of ideologies in mind: grandiose, abstract and threatening. Undoubtedly, the century has experienced clashes of such titans, with the emergence of mass politics and sophisticated modes of recruiting popular support and activism. Undoubtedly, it has also seen the rapid rise and fall of an ideology such as fascism and a rather more protracted process with regard to communism, though to proclaim their death would still be premature. It has been fascinated by the power of totalitarian ideologies, sweeping all impediments and opposition in

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