Ideas and Their Discontents — A Review

On November 25, 1994, Isaiah Berlin accepted a Doctor of Laws honorary degree at the University of Toronto. His remarks, “A Message to the 21st Century,” were read to the audience. Though he felt sure that the 21st century, “can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been,” we cannot fault him for his misapprehension.

A biographer said that he dictated all his manuscripts. Given this style of composition, what is truly remarkable is his coherent train of thought, especially in longer works. What captured my attention in this essay was the clarity with which he outlined our ongoing problem.

Isaiah Berlin During the Reception of the Erasmus Prize, Oct. 1983 – Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Historical Reference

Berlin’s essay starts with a historical reference point,

Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds [of the past] pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.

Berlin viewed these crimes as due to a drive toward some singular idea of perfection, not merely due to fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power, etc., though those played a part.

As an illustration of the power of ideas, he relates an observation by the German poet Heinrich Heine, “[he] told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.”

Berlin goes on to say that Heine predicted that armed disciples of German nationalist philosophers would destroy Europe in a way that would make the French Revolution seem insignificant. He then says,

There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

Ideas Motivate

Berlin plainly states the following,

…If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.

Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.

He says that this is how Lenin reacted after he read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Berlin says that if he (Lenin) could create a “just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society,” then this singular, perfect end justified absolutely any means to achieve it. And Lenin pursued his goal with conviction.

Berlin points out that the root of such a conviction is the premise that the central questions of life have one true answer; and once discovered, they must be implemented. Those who have found these answers are law givers and must be followed to the end. He says that opposing leaders fought wars over which answer was right, but each was convinced they had the unique answer and only mankind’s sin or ignorance could thwart them.

One True Answer

He states that this “one true answer to life’s questions” is an age-old problem and it is demonstrably false.

Berlin says that humans, at all times and in all places, desire “liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, etc.” However, these universal values cannot be completely realized simultaneously. He offers the following examples,

  • Complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality…
    • If men were wholly free, the “wolves” would be free to eat the “sheep.”
    • Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted [do not overtake] those who would…lose if there were competition.
  • Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted…
  • Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy.
  • Creative imagination and spontaneity…cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation.
  • Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire…

He concludes, “I must always choose between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance.”

Berlin says that he can offer no silver bullet to restrain the “champions” of one or another of these values, “each of whom,” likely referring to the champions, “tends to trample upon the rest.” However, he offers this modest proposal,

…If these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion.

…Some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.

He says, “We must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals.”


Passionately, Berlin adjures his listeners,

…One cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory.

The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.

And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelet is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking.

And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelet, and just go on breaking eggs.

Along with Berlin, I must urge us to examine our beliefs. Are we pursuing a “single, overarching ideal,” with which all will be well, and without, we will not lift a hand, in the here and now, to improve our fellow citizens’ lot? If that’s a yes, get over yourself; put your hand to the plow, do not look back, and humbly serve your fellow citizens in your community, state, and nation in the ways you are able.

Who Is Karl Marx? September 24, 2018, YouTube, PragerU

The State and End State by Bernhardt Writer

A while back we reviewed Kenneth Minogue’s book: Alien Powers – The Pure Theory of Ideology. In it, he contends that Western civilization is in the throes of a conflict over a right understanding of the human condition. So, how does it all turn out in the end were ideology to win?

Politics and Democracy

Ideology masquerades as a political movement, but it is determined to destroy the circumstances underpinning politics. It draws out our moral instincts while it denies the possibility of morality. It affirms freedom while striving for a community in which only one right act will be possible for each circumstance. Ideology attacks inequality but seeks to destroy the individual human capable of achieving equality in a meaningful sense. It champions real democracy but advocates unanimity that makes democracy superfluous. Ideology’s practitioners use criticism to attack opponents while claiming their own truths are incontrovertible.

Ideology portrays deficiencies of the human condition (i.e., personal sin) as structural flaws of an oppressive system. It must methodically destroy the political ideas and values that the system represents. These ideas and values merely hide the system’s ulterior interests. Ideology can only be satisfied by a perfect democracy which is, by definition, unattainable. It is ideologically absurd to let those deluded by the system’s structural faults to select leaders when the people (i.e., the vanguard) leading the way to the perfect community, alone, have the necessary knowledge.

Ideology and the State

States provide liberty by instituting legal rights. Individuals within the state exercise these rights as responsible agents of choice. The result is a world both unpredictable and uncontrollable because what people will do with their rights is unknowable until they decide and act.

Karl Marx, however, said that rights separated person from person (i.e., alienated them one from another). His ideal society would possess liberty without rights. Those in his transformed society would no longer mistrust or have disagreements of right and wrong. There would be complete harmony in which no one would need to exercise rights. In fact, there would no longer be individuals capable of exercising rights in such a perfect harmonious community.

Ideology says states foster citizens’ independent actions, the soil in which oppression thrives. Oppression can only be prevented by destroying the state itself. Ideologies use “one party states” to destroy any remaining independence in a society enthralled to the ideology.

A capitalistic society provides laws under which the citizenry orders their life choices and actions. Under an ideology’s social order, everyone is occupied with transforming society. Nothing prevents citizens in a modern state from creating communes, collective farms, or cooperatives. However, it is both criminal and regressive for those in an ideological state to set up a business or practice unsanctioned religion.

States provide rules according to which citizens choose how to satisfy their interests. The mistake ideological governments make is to decide between interests. By determining interests, ideologies show that their social criticism is aimed, not at the centralized state, but the private interests of citizens and associations that compose the state.

Impediment to Revolution

What stands in the way of ideology’s revolutionary conquest is transcendent religion. Minogue says that someone is not fit for revolution who, like Adam Smith, believes:

“A wise man never complains of the destiny of Providence, nor thinks the universe in confusion when he is out-of-order.”

Marx observed that engaging the wretched to carry out insurrection will never happen if they are lost in religious fantasies.

Perfect Community and the Individual

In an integrated community of individuals, each one is the proprietor of their own desires and the adjudicator of their own thoughts. Ideology sees this as the cause for aggression, greed, selfishness, and violence because some desire more than they have or want what others possess. Ideology rejects the possibility of personal responsibility and self-control as the foundation of relationships within a functioning society.

Should humans live as free agents making individual choices or as a collective species with no individuation in so-called perfection? Ideology says perfect community is not only desirable, but the only form possible (all other forms being ones of oppression).

Would these humans in perfect community have self-awareness and the ability to choose to cooperate? Ideology says that as long as they have real choice then their actions no longer depend on correct human consciousness but on contingent human will. In short: no. A community that freely chooses to cooperate could choose not to do so at some point in the future. If that were to happen, then the ideological terminus (perfect community) could itself be overthrown.

To give a sense of the import of such a transformation, Marx says:

When the laborer co-operates systematically with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species…The present generation resembles the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It must not only conquer a new world, it must also perish in order to make room for people who will be equal to a new world.

Further, Minogue says that in true community:

Each of us will be drops of water in a clear pond. We shall live at the level of the universal, sloughing off that involvement in particular passions and particular points of view which is the very definition of our present entrapment. There will be no self to be denied or subjected. Particular character and situation would have no reality in themselves.

Ideology’s Results

Ideology’s direct contribution to society is to set worker against capitalist, Black against White, men against women, etc. No one can doubt ideology has gotten results by calling out grave instances of oppression; but, in the process, it has multiplied pointless, diffuse antagonisms that have weakened the fabric of Western society and culture.

True community may be a thing of wonder. However, the resolution of strife between essences and existence leaves no one to contemplate that beauty since they both must be “resolved.” The so-called alienated human being is abolished.

This means that ideology, carried to its terminus (and there is no other purpose), poses an existential threat to the West. Declaring Western civilization rotten to the core, ideology does away with the possibility of the individual human life in exchange for a myth of pure species. This is the equivalent of a suicide pact.

May Day Poster

Russian 1st of May poster, Soviet, Public Domain in the US

Minogue’s book is available (in part) on Google Books. As an example of the pervasive influence of ideology, the National Association of Scholars has recently addressed the sustainability movement as an ideology encroaching on academic freedom.

“Sustainability” is a key idea on college campuses in the United States and the rest of the Western world. To the unsuspecting, sustainability is just a new name for environmentalism. But the word really marks out a new and larger ideological territory in which curtailing economic, political, and intellectual liberty is the price that must be paid now to ensure the welfare of future generations. [Emphasis mine]

The movement is just another example of special interests seeking to “throw off oppression” using coercion and, if that fails, barbarity in a quest for supremacy.

As I’ve said before, I agree with Orwell’s assessment of his novel Nineteen Eighty Four: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.

Ideology’s Characteristics by Bernhardt Writer

A few weeks ago, we reviewed Kenneth Minogue’s book: Alien Powers – The Pure Theory of Ideology. He writes that Western civilization is in the throes of a conflict over a right understanding of the human condition. Minogue suggests that the ideological approach is ascendant in our society while the transcendent is declining. He claims that there is a generally applicable pure theory of ideology best realized to date in Marxist ideology and its offspring. Let us touch on some of the general points from his book.


The common person on the street condemns the results of bad human actions. They attempt to rectify those results when possible through small corrective steps. These citizens view politics as the method to work together toward agreed-to ends within the context of the rule of law.

The ideologist takes bad actions as evidence of systemic structural oppression that can be remedied only through complete overhaul of the entire system (i.e., revolution). The ideologist sees incremental moral reform as the mystification (i.e., obscuration or concealment) by which an oppressive system strings its victims along. Politics is a question of power. Only the power of a unified oppressed group can wring concessions from the oppressors who have more power.

Ideologies disclose truths that the prevailing system has an interest in hiding. Ideologies claim all interactions within the system are power relationships. This truth is masked by societal constraints (i.e., moral and civil rules of conduct) and nefarious concealments perpetrated by the oppressive system. Denial of unmasked truths is proof of the system’s betrayal and oppression at work.

Societal constraints serve the oppressors’ interests. That these rules promote goodness and justice masks their real import which is the exercise of power over the oppressed. If the oppressed demand their right to overthrow these constraints they are rebuffed for not obeying a law, moral principle, or divine ordinance. But the real reason they are denied is because it conflicts with the oppressors interests in a zero-sum transaction.

Ideology reveals masked favoritism and domination throughout the corrupt system. The oppressed have rightful grievances (e.g., ones of class, gender, race, or ethnicity) against the system. Each oppressed person is imprisoned by the system’s conditioning which divides the oppressed from each other and from their real source of being in the species. Their struggle for liberation will result in true community.

Science, philosophy, law, and the state are instruments of special interests according to ideology. Although the intellectual elite might root out interests in favor of inclusiveness, those ideologically driven look to those deprived by the system for remedy. These persons, excluded by the system, unqualified to represent themselves, are appointed to lead humankind to liberation. This oppressed group is qualified because it is least tainted by the system’s corrupting influences. Of course, ideologists are ready and willing to indoctrinate the oppressed group in the ways of liberation and speak for them.

Ideology unveils for us the hidden truth otherwise mystified by the system’s apologists. Cleansed of the system’s mystifications we will see the truth of our essence and our consciences will rise to state of things as they actually exist. We will realize that the human species is defined by social (e.g., production) and material (e.g., eating) processes. We will arrive at this non-western reality through the struggle for liberation rather than through fruitless and pernicious contemplation.

Ideology is to revolution the way politics is to reform. Ideology does not debate whether theft, for instance, should be treated severely or mercifully but rather abolishes private property altogether making theft fictitious. Each resolution of this type typifies the true community. Any particular problem is solved only by solving all problems via revolution.

Ideology pledges a comprehensive and ultimate explanation of this material world (since it claims that the transcendent world to come does not exist). The explanation (i.e., ideological revelation) is not merely knowledge but leads to societal transformation which improves the earthly human condition. The difficulty of overcoming opposition and bringing about the transformation is evidence for the truth of the explanation.

The ideological model of human history is triadic: the primitive community in harmony gives way to a succession of societies characterized by domination. By overthrowing this progression man arrives at a higher form of his initial communal harmony.


Minogue credits Karl Marx as the sole individual responsible, not only for clear insights into capitalism, but for the creation of pure ideology. He claims Marx developed the theory further and more deeply than all others. It is this pure theory that Minogue describes in his book. We will cover the end result of the ideological project in a later post.

Karl Marx

A Portrait of Karl Marx, John Jabez Edwin Mayall (1813–1901), Public Domain in the US