Concluding remarks
in Understanding political ideas and movements

Politics takes place within a framework of ideas and concepts, ideological and religious beliefs, and social and political institutions moulded by the struggles arising from their interplay. This chapter focuses on religion and politics, disabled rights movements, gay rights movements and animal rights movements. Religious identity plays a very important role in the creation of the national identity of most countries. 'Fundamentalism' was originally applied to an approach to religion in which it was assumed that the original purity of the faith had been compromised and that purification by means of a return to the well springs was required. In Europe and particularly in Britain, fundamentalism seems to have virtually no mainstream political impact. Radical secularism and the political pseudo-religions of fascism and communism have created as much misery and death as has religion during the twentieth century.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on it being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)

Politics takes place within a framework of ideas and concepts, ideological and religious beliefs, and social and political institutions moulded by the struggles arising from their interplay. Ideas greatly influence the practical politics of any society and are always closely associated with the complex interactions between principle (what an individual feels is morally right) and how it affects their self-interest (however defined). One might strongly argue, with justification, that much of relevance to the study of key concepts and movements has been missed out of this book, things that are of greater concern and impact on society than the ‘tired, old’ ideas and movements discussed above. We believe that these ideas and movements are not out-dated, that they are still the main influences on modern politics, particularly in the Western world, as well as in other societies.

This book concentrates on the Western Enlightenment tradition of political concepts and ideas. Elements of the tradition can be found in modern political movements, as we have already discussed, and also in some new ones as yet on the political fringes. Some have had a marked effect on mainstream political debate; some have sought an influence on the main political parties; but it is as interest or pressure groups that such movements have had most effect on political parties and state institutions.

As space precludes a discussion of all of them, we will briefly examine:

  • religion and politics;
  • disabled rights movements;
  • gay rights movements;
  • animal rights movements.

Religion and politics

Religion has always played a major part in politics. Marxists have been especially strong on recognising the crucial role of religion as a means of social control, of reinforcing the status quo in society. Indeed, many conservatives have claimed that religion is a vital and positive social ‘cement’, holding society together.

Religious identity plays a very important role in the creation of the national identity of most countries. Judaism and Christianity, via the Bible, have had a great influence on the development of concepts of human rights in Western countries. British socialism has been deeply influenced by the nonconformist Christian tradition. Conservatism in Britain and the Christian Democratic parties of Germany and Italy have been closely identified with particular forms of the Christian tradition (Anglicanism in Britain and Catholicism in Germany and Italy).

However, the Christian tradition in Western Europe is declining in importance as a form of moral and political reference. Church attendances are down to a tiny proportion of the population (although they do tend to rise during periods of political and economic crisis). Religion is believed by many to be at best a marginal influence on modern politics and at worst a dangerous purveyor of intolerance, bigotry and hatred. When one considers the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Israeli–Palestinian struggle, the conflict between India and Pakistan, religion plays a crucial part as an irritant. The term ‘religious fundamentalist’ conjures up the image of the religious bigot, but we shall argue that this is often an unjust verdict.

The nature of religious fundamentalism

‘Fundamentalism’ was a term originally applied to an approach to religion in which it was assumed that the original purity of the faith had been compromised and that purification by means of a return to the well springs was required. For religions with a strong basis in scriptures, notably Protestant Christianity, Islam and Judaism, this involves going back to what is taken to be the original meaning of the texts, texts whose ultimate validity is their divine inspiration. Fundamentalism is, however, not confined to these faiths. There are versions of it in Roman Catholicism, with some Catholics hoping for a return to pre-Vatican II (1962–65) doctrines and practices.

One might even speak of ‘secular fundamentalism’ on the far left, appealing to the original (or what is claimed to be the original) doctrines of socialism and a rejection of various compromises or ‘revisionism’. ‘Secular fundamentalists’ are so called because they are vehemently opposed to any religious contribution to politics and society, and condemn religion outright as having nothing of value to give to the human experience.

However, the word ‘fundamentalism’ has recently acquired a specific political sense, especially in the USA, where there has been an attempt to apply moral absolutes, derived from Christianity, to a wide spectrum of political, social and economic issues. Islamic fundamentalism, as evinced in Iran and, until 2002, Afghanistan, is similarly an attempt to apply a strict interpretation of religious beliefs, in this case based on the Koran, to a restructuring of those countries.

Historically, organised religion has always attempted to influence the political process, partly to promote its own moral values and partly to strengthen its own institutional position within society. Fundamentalism is somewhat different.

First, it denies the convention, implicit in Western liberalism, of distinct private and public spheres of belief and activity. The concept of a secular society assumes that religion will be confined to an individual’s private life, that church and state will be separate and each will stick firmly to its own business. Fundamentalism flatly denies this distinction. Moreover, it claims that certain moral principles readily translate into a political programme and are founded on divine authority. In America, these tend towards extreme rigidity, justified as being based on the unchangeable word of God as revealed in the Bible. In Europe the Catholic Church has certainly sought and achieved political influence, for example, through Christian Democrat parties. Catholic social teaching, promulgated in a number of papal and conciliar documents over the last two centuries, has plainly developed substantially and has, in practice, shown considerable flexibility.

A second striking feature is that, while fundamentalists of all varieties tend to reject modern culture, they are adept at using modern technology and the processes of manipulation associated with it. This was vividly illustrated in the use, among other things, of television, the internet and electronic data by evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims to promote their religious beliefs and support candidates for public office who share their political programmes.

Many commentators have described fundamentalism as a characteristic of profoundly disturbed societies. Much of its strength comes from its simplifications, its claim to ultimate authority, its confidence in explaining crises and providing solutions and in the case of Islamic fundamentalism its validation of indigenous culture, values, tradition and history against the powerful and secular West.

Fundamentalism today

It would be unwise to under-estimate the power of fundamentalism in many societies. Perhaps most significantly, the sense of participation in a cosmic struggle between good and evil gives a sense of deep inner commitment to its followers. With the collapse of communism and, arguably, the decline of nationalism, perhaps only fundamentalism can give beliefs this inner assurance. Religious fundamentalism has been on the rise in the USA (Christianity and Islam), Israel (Judaism), India (Hinduism), and throughout the Islamic world of the Middle and Far East and Northern Africa.

However, in Europe and particularly in Britain, fundamentalism seems to have virtually no mainstream political impact. There are occasional flurries of moral reaction, as with John Major’s ‘back to basics’ proposals in the early 1990s, but there is no substantial organised political campaign. The Protestant Unionist parties of Northern Ireland are sometimes perceived as ‘fundamentalist’, but their political goal of Protestant domination, or at least independence from the Irish Republic, is closer to the political goal of the tribe than to a moral crusade. Islamic fundamentalism is a small but significant element among British Muslims, a community characterised by being both highly law-abiding but also poorly integrated into British society.

Critiques of fundamentalism

Fundamentalism has come under ferocious attack on a number of counts from the liberal, socialist and even conservative traditions (with which it is often confused).

The first count is that many people do not accept the claim that moral imperatives have divine sanction at all. Even for those who do, the problem is how to accommodate such claims within a modern pluralist society. Vigorous pursuit of fundamentalist goals will inevitably cause intolerably divisive pressures in society. Civilised and rational discourse becomes impossible with those who regard all opposition as diabolical, all criticism as immoral and all compromise as treason.

In practice, fundamentalism, it is alleged, drives people to extremes by justifying acts which reasonable people would see as outrageous – suicide bombings in Israel, attacks on abortion clinics in America, anti-Western terrorist attacks in the USA and elsewhere. Within America, fundamentalists have been strongly criticised by mainstream Christian churches such as the Catholics, Episcopalians and Quakers, for promoting a narrow, intolerant, over-literal reading of the Bible and for taking positions on nuclear weapons, capital punishment, economic liberalism and environmental issues which have only the most tenuous biblical authority. Fundamentalists, their detractors argue, confuse early American principles with Christian values. Similar criticisms are made of the Islamic world where, for example, Arab or Iranian nationalism is sometimes confused with Islamic orthodoxy.

Finally, according to its critics, fundamentalism does not work. It provides no real solutions to the problems in the modern world. In those countries where it is a powerful influence it has been characterised by a puritan minority imposing their fanatical will on the majority with little tangible benefit to society.

One must not blame religion or religious fundamentalism for the ills of the world. Radical secularism and the political pseudo-religions of fascism and communism have created as much misery and death as has religion during the twentieth century. In fact, it has often been religion that has inspired people to enormous sacrifices in resisting such tyrannies: Protestants in Nazi Germany, Catholics in Communist Poland and Orthodox Christians in the USSR all contributed to the resistance to their respective totalitarian regimes.

Disabled rights movements

The term ‘disability’ is a controversial one. It has a number of negative connotations: a disabled person is physically or mentally ‘unfit’ or ‘incapable’, or somehow ‘inferior’ to one who is ‘able’, and is ‘separated’ from the ‘ablebodied’ population. Campaigners for ‘disabled rights’ often prefer to use ‘differently abled’ as a more positive description of people who do not have the same physical or mental capacities as others but who are still capable of making positive contributions to society. In law, ‘disability’ is defined as ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.1

Most disabled rights campaigners seek to change public attitudes towards the disabled by challenging the use of words that are claimed to be derogatory. For example, referring to a ‘hearing impairment’ is preferable to saying ‘deaf’; ‘visually impaired’ is a more accurate description of most of those described as ‘blind’; and ‘cripple’ is a now unacceptable word to describe people with mobility problems. Words are important and influence how disabled people are treated by the able-bodied. Carefully thought-out descriptive terms are part of a process, disabled campaigners hope, of creating a more positive image of people with disabilities and their potential contribution to the common good.

The growth of the disabled rights movement (although ‘movements’ is a probably a more accurate description of the wide range of organisations involved) comes from a number of social trends. Three factors have multiplied the numbers of disabled voters in society: insurance companies estimate that people are five times more likely by the age of 65 to become disabled and unable to work than to die; advances in medical technology have amplified the likelihood that congenitally disabled people will survive into adulthood; rising life expectancy ensures that more people will live long enough to become disabled in old age. When one adds to the steadily growing constituency for disabled rights the increasing unwillingness of disabled people, like other disadvantaged groups, to tolerate discrimination and a ‘second-class’ status in life one can see that the potential for political action is strong and rising.

Disabled people have a moral right as human beings to equal opportunity and equal treatment in society. Disabled rights activists argue that it is not enough to be sympathetic to disabled people; more needs to be done to enable them to play a full part in society, including the world of work.

A person’s particular disability may preclude them from certain types of work but not all types of employment. Relatively few people are so disabled that they cannot work and are forced to be totally dependent on welfare benefits. In practice, discrimination in the labour market ensures that disabled people are less likely to be appointed to a job, are less likely to be promoted once in an occupation, and are far more likely to be unemployed than able-bodied people, trapping them in poverty. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against disabled people but, say disability campaigners, the legislation lacks effective enforcement powers.

Public attitudes towards the disabled need reform. Too often the disabled are ignored, patronised, treated with distaste by the able-bodied. Only when there is a more positive image of the disabled will public attitudes change and opportunities for the disabled in society improve. Some disabled activists are not prepared to play the ‘noble victim’, suffering in silence and gratefully receiving society’s charity – a role that flatters the feelings of the able-bodied and does nothing for the disabled.

Disabled activists are also deeply worried about the implications for the disabled of modern medicine and genetics. At one level, science offers the possibility of identifying inherited genetic disabilities and alleviating or even eliminating them. At another level, however, medical and genetic science raises the potential for identifying ‘defective’ foetuses and offering parents the choice of abortion. A whole class of people is created, a disabled ‘second class’ that can be eliminated from society before they are born, removing their potential contribution to society as well as their right to life. Disabled rights activists would want to know who has the right to determine what is ‘normality’ and to set the standards by which human life will be determined.

Disabled rights campaigners try to influence government in ways similar to other pressure groups. Some are insider groups, such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), quietly at work behind the scenes to influence government policies and legislation. Other disabled rights campaigners point out that Acts of Parliament give rights and protection to disabled people but that there is no effective enforcement by bodies such as the Disability Rights Commission. Radical campaigners believe direct action and protests are the only way to bring the discrimination faced by disabled people onto the political agenda, to empower the disabled and encourage them to be socially integrated. They want to make it clear to government and the public that disabled people are not to be ignored, patronised and given a few ‘crumbs’ for which they are supposed to be grateful.

Gay rights movements

One might assume that sexual preference is a matter for individual choice and is of little concern to government and society at large so long as individuals consent to their involvement in particular sexual activities which take place in private and ‘don’t scare the horses’. Perhaps only 4 per cent of the population are exclusively homosexual, but possibly over 20 per cent have had some form of homosexual experience. The ‘gay’ population in society, whether great or small in number, is a significant one in politics (if only because of the higher percentage of gay people found in elite political and, especially, cultural groups).

Sexual activity has always been subject to social (or ‘normative’) sanctions and legal constraints. Society and the state always assume that private sexual activity has a public dimension that comes within the political sphere. Gay activists agree. They have involved themselves in political campaigning to change the law, especially on the age of consent for male homosexual activity and opposition to ‘Clause 28’ of the Local Government Act (which made teaching children about homosexuality, or ‘promoting’ it, a criminal offence), and to change public attitudes towards homosexuality.

Unlike lesbianism, which is not affected by the criminal law and forms a separate feminist issue, male homosexuality, has been a criminal offence in most Western countries until quite recently. Until the Sexual Offences Reform Act (1967) gay men faced prosecution for homosexual sex, even between consenting adults in a private place. This provided a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ and posed a threat to the careers and reputations of gay men if their sexual orientation were exposed.

The 1967 Act removed the criminal nature of homosexuality. However, a number of legal discriminations remained. Anal sex remained illegal (whether gay or straight), gay men were still committing an offence if they indulged in group sex, gay couples had no joint property and pension rights comparable to heterosexuals and the age of consent for gay men remained at 21 years. Gay activists challenged these and other legal discriminations.

The age of consent for gay men remained at 21 after the 1967 Act, while heterosexual sex was legal at 16. Gay rights activists attacked the different age limits as discriminatory, unfair and against equal rights principles. They argued that gay people knew their sexuality at the same age as straight people.

If this was the case, the age of consent created undue suffering for gay teenagers and unfair criminalising of adult males having sex with young men (whereas it was not a crime to have sex with women over 16). After many years of campaigning the age of consent was reduced to 18 in 1994 and then further to 16 in 2001, but only after the Parliament Act had been invoked to overturn the opposition of the House of Lords to the proposed legislation.

The law recognises only heterosexual couples as having the right to marry. According to gay rights activists, gay couples suffer legal discrimination in pension, social security and property rights because they are not allowed to marry. The law needs to be changed to give long-term gay couples the right to some form of legally recognised ‘marriage’ (for want of a better word) with its concomitant rights and obligations.

Immigration legislation is also believed to discriminate against gay people. British citizens can bring into the country their alien wives and husbands, but not their non-British gay partners. This is another area of gay rights campaigning.

Whatever legal improvements occur in society gay men and women face considerable discrimination in work and social situations that damages their receipt of equal rights and equal opportunities and amounts to ‘oppression’ of a group of people on the grounds of sexual orientation. Gay activists assert that the majority heterosexual society (the one that generates most sexual criminality) has established a dominant ideology that asserts their sexual activities as ‘normal’ and gay sex as ‘perverted’, ‘deviant’ and ‘abnormal’. This sanctions discrimination and also verbal and physical assaults on gay people and their property. It also creates a culture of intimidation that makes straight politicians and other holders of power in society unwilling to address gay concerns for fear of damaging their own careers and personal standing.

It is believed that there are far more gay MPs than have openly declared their sexuality and that gay people are less likely than straight to be chosen by political parties as candidates for parliament, especially the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in some of the old industrial constituencies. This belief may owe more to perceptions of popular prejudice than to reality. There is little evidence that voters are unwilling in large numbers to vote against a gay candidate. Indeed, anti-gay votes are likely to be countered by the votes attracted to candidates who openly state their gay sexuality. ‘Outing’, the publicising of the gay sexuality of reticent public figures, is a controversial tactic used by some gay rights campaigners – a strategy that their opponents within the gay community say does more harm than good to the cause of equal rights opportunities for gay people. Gay activists in groups such as ‘Stonewall’ and ‘Outrage’ have been willing to ‘out’ MPs and other public figures who support anti-gay legislation or make anti-gay statements in public.

Another target of gay rights campaigners is the insurance industry, which discriminates against gay males, in particular in policy acceptance, premiums and payouts, because of AIDS. Gay men in Western societies are more likely to suffer with HIV and AIDS than are heterosexuals. Some insurance companies refuse to offer policies to gay men, others charge significantly higher premiums for gay men than straight and all offer lower rewards on completion of policies if the policyholder is a gay man.

Some gay activists target the major religions, especially Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for homophobic beliefs which legitimise anti-gay beliefs in society and contribute to the social oppression of gays.

Sexual orientation does not easily equate with formal political ideologies and gay activists attack all the major political parties for their homophobic policies. Much gay rights political activity has strong elements of counterculture to it. ‘Outing’, ‘gay pride’ marches and the provocatively outrageous activities of some gay activists in pursuit of gay rights might, in the minds of moderate gays and their supporters, cause more harm than good. Unhelpful stereotypes of gay people are reinforced in some campaigns even when these campaigns are themselves attacking the stereotyping of gays by heterosexual culture as consisting of butch women, effeminate men and ‘screaming queens’.

However, perhaps such high-profile campaigning by gay rights activists is important. There are still widespread assumptions in society that homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, is deeply ‘wrong’. Improving the treatment of gay people in society is a matter not just of changing legal discrimination, but also of changing the attitudes of the majority of the population. There is still a long way to go.

Animal rights movements

Animal rights campaigners are concerned with many aspects of humanity’s relationship with the animal world. Fundamentally, activists object to the exploitation of animals by humans in whatever area: for food, as an industrial resource, as objects of scientific testing, or for sport. Upholders of animal rights, even from ancient times, have a concern that the abuse and exploitation of animals somehow weakens the moral restraints placed on humans not to abuse and exploit other people. They often identify a close link between the denial of rights for animals, especially the higher primates such as chimps and gorillas, and the denial of full and equal rights to some classifications of humans on the spurious bases of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

Many philosophers of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries argued strongly that animals did not have any rational basis for rights as compared to humans. Animals were not rational, did not have a consciousness, and were merely resources placed on earth for human convenience. Any attempt to give them rights was not only nonsense but would weaken the claims human beings had to a moral autonomy superior to the rest of creation.

However, by the late eighteenth century some thinkers were attempting to place restraints on human cruelty to animals. Jeremy Bentham, in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), declared that humans were wrong in seeing rationality as the basis for treating animals with care: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But Can they suffer?’ It is the perceived suffering of animals that led to bans on badger , bull and bear baiting, and cock fighting over the century after Bentham and may eventually lead to the banning of fox, deer and hare hunting with dogs in the twenty-first.

Concern over cruelty, exploitation and suffering led many in Britain during the nineteenth century to establish the major principles of vegetarianism. The growth of vegetarianism closely paralleled the rise of a wide range of radical and socialist movements which have campaigned for human rights and better animal welfare legislation over the last two centuries.

Strictly speaking, one should distinguish between animal rights movements, which emphasise the moral status of non-human creatures, and animal welfare movements, which seek to improve the conditions under which animals are reared for food or used as pets. Animal rights activists often dislike animal welfare campaigners as the latter accept the subordinate position of animals in relation to humans but desire to improve the conditions under which they are kept. Some animal rights campaigners assert that exploitation, not welfare, is the issue.

We shall cast a very cursory glance at a number of areas in which animal rights campaigners are active.

Modern writers, such as Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights (1983) and Peter Singer in Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals (1965), have argued that animals possess rights, rights that are oppressed and abused by humans. Animals can feel suffering, have some understanding of their environment and are thus entitled to proper treatment from humans. In recent years, genetic science has reinforced the case for human rights to be recognised as appertaining to chimpanzees and gorillas and other higher primates who share almost all the genetic make-up of homo sapiens sapiens.

Many animal rights campaigners attack vivisection and animal experimentation on the grounds that they are part of the structure of exploitation of animals by men. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, for example, rejects the claim made by scientists that animal experimentation is necessary for scientific and medical research. Computer technology and other means of research have made vivisection redundant, according to the Humane Research Trust (another anti-vivisection group). The government is condemned for being more concerned with the needs of business than with animal welfare. Particularly objectionable are farms that breed animals for experimentation.

Factory farming methods are also a target of animal rights campaigners. The conditions under which animals are raised for intensive food production disregard animal welfare and are primarily concerned with protecting business interests and the supply of cheap food.

Hunting is a special target of animal rights campaigners as it is simply exploiting animals for sport. Particularly subject to condemnation is fox hunting (especially as it is perceived as combining cruelty and high-class status). If some cruel sports such as badger baiting are banned, why should other animal cruelty sports still be legal? Cruel sports exploit animals, involve inflicting pain and fear and degrade the people who take part in them. Some success in the campaign against fox hunting was achieved in 2002 when the Scottish Parliament voted to introduce a ban on hunting with dogs. The Scottish decision will have an impact on the anti-hunting campaign in England and Wales.

Animal rights campaigning uses every form of political action, from protesting and attempting to lobby government to terrorism. Some animal rights campaigners have sought to work within organisations such as the National Trust and the RSPCA to bring about change. They have had very limited success. The Animal Liberation Front appeals to a higher moral law than legislation when it campaigns against the exploitation of animals by businesses, whose interests are protected by the same oppressive legal system that allows animal exploitation and cruelty. Other direct-action campaigners are not interested in having a dialogue with hunters or animal experimenters, or even in influencing public opinion. They see traditional political methods as having failed to protect animal rights and the level of animal suffering as too great to wait for a change in public opinion or for eform through government action.

The competitive nature of ideologies and movements

Some of the movements we have discussed are, by the standards of the ‘dominant’ ideologies of the Western world, ‘extreme’ or ‘fundamentalist’. This is not surprising. Most ideologies and movements in their early stages are in competition with and in opposition to the prevailing beliefs and opinions of their age. With the exception of conservatism, all the other movements we have looked at underwent long periods of apprenticeship as ‘new’ movements, challenging the established social values and social and political order of their day. One can identify a number of ‘stages’ through which they pass to become, sometimes, part of mainstream ideas.

  1. They have to establish clear parameters to their own ideological distinctiveness. What are they trying to say? What does someone have to believe as a set of core values in order to be part of this movement? This often creates an impression of extremism and radicalism, generating bitter resistance to the ideas of the new movement in mainstream society.
  2. The political and ideological struggle of the new movement will have no access to power in its early stages of development. It lacks the need to compromise, to adjust to other views, and to face the realities of power. Thus a level of ideological purity can be maintained that is never possible once in government. Governments that attempt to pursue ideologically pure programmes usually result in terror for millions. A regime that is built on an immature ideology tries to make or reform society in its own image, to force reality into conformity with its theoretical straitjacket.
  3. If such a movement fails to achieve power quickly, as is usually the case, the compromises required to attain power will mean that, over time, it becomes less ‘radical’, more ‘pragmatic’, more ‘respectable’, its ideas becoming part of the ‘common-sense’ ideological baggage of society. It will have made the transition from being primarily a ‘restrictive’ ideological movement to being a ‘relaxed’ one: from a movement less concerned with detailed understanding of the ideas of the key thinkers associated with it to one that attempts to bring into play policy programmes broadly in sympathy with basic – but flexible – principles.
  4. Eventually, the movement may become part of the ‘establishment’, the ‘dominant’ ideology of its society, the ‘respectable consensus’. As such, while it may make references to its past and present ‘radicalism’, it will, in practice, have no desire to reform society significantly along the lines envisaged by its early idealists. It is thus likely to provoke new critiques of society, new plans for reform, new movements and new ideological debate.

These stages, for want of a better word, will not take place in a vacuum. They are usually ‘archaeological’ records of social and economic, intellectual and moral changes and the struggles connected with them. Ideologies and movements that fail to adapt to social change, that do not reflect its direction and impetus, will not only have a declining influence on society but will cease to be politically relevant and will eventually fade from the political scene.

One recent intellectual movement – ‘fashion’ might be a more accurate term – that has attempted to recreate a vacuum at the heart of political analysis is ‘post-modernism’. Post-modernism asserts that there is no objective truth and no ultimate reality. It challenges the assumption of the Enlightenment that it is possible to use reason to understand reality as a unified and integrated theoretical construct and so be able to impose intellectual order and understanding on the world. Post-modernists claim that social reality is too complex to be subject to the tenets of the major ideological traditions.

Some might find this a reasonable response to the modern world. But one needs to understand the world, to make sense of it in order to act. There is the great danger that post-modernism simply leads to a nihilistic world view, an intellectual atomisation and an inability to act to make the world a better place, or at least to stop it getting worse. Post-modernism might be an interesting academic debate, but it may not be one that citizens and politicians facing real and pressing problems are willing to join.

The importance of rationality

Western society over the last three centuries or so has been greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment took many forms in different European countries during the late seventeenth and through the eighteenth centuries. It presupposed the importance of rational thought, enquiry, belief in progress, investigation of evidence, a rejection of superstition, a dislike of irrational thought, and a scepticism about all religious, moral and scientific thinking.

Concurrent with this intellectual movement there has been the continuing presence of atavistic and irrational beliefs, destructive, fatalistic and always waiting, patiently, for the tiring rigours of rationality and experimentation, assessment and rejection of failure to overwhelm their supporters. Out of these dark crannies of the minds of millions come irrational and radical movements and ideas trying to change society in their image. The members of such movements regard their goals as so important that they devalue and degrade constitutional structures and promote simple solutions to complex problems, solutions often associated with a romanticised view of violence as a political tool. They also appeal to the supreme ‘truth’ of their belief that those who resist or do not share their views are ‘legitimate’ targets for terror, death and the infliction of pain.

Such elemental ideological forces can be easily identified in fascism, extreme nationalism, far left-wing politics, and religious fundamentalism of all kinds. But ideological flight from reality into irrationality can also be observed in some parts of the environmental and animal rights movements, and in feminism, liberalism, conservatism and socialism. The demands of ‘political correctness’ in many American universities have played a valuable role in challenging many of the assumptions of an ideological world of ‘dead, white, European males’. All too often, political correctness has become a means by which those who do not share the same ideological and political agenda are subject to abuse rather than debate, threats rather than arguments, and in some cases disciplinary procedures and loss of jobs, all in the cause of advancing ‘disadvantaged’ groups in liberal societies.

The values of an open society will not be defended if its enemies are only to be identified by their wearing of swastika armbands, red berets or the accoutrements of religion. Ideological oppressions associated with political movements and ideas one supports must also be subject to the same level of critical analysis one applies to the opinions one dislikes if a free society worth the name is to be sustained.

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Understanding political ideas and movements

A guide for A2 politics students

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