John Summers in Dissent:
Once upon a time, ideologies told us what mattered. “A total ideology,” Bell explained in his most famous book,
is an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality, it is a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole of a way of life. This commitment to ideology—the yearning for a ‘cause,’ or the satisfaction of deep moral feelings—is not necessarily the reflection of interests in the shape of ideas. Ideology, in this sense, and in the sense that we use it here, is a secular religion.
It was this large conception, and not “the particular conception of ideology” behind particular issues and groups, that Bell addressed. And it was Marxian socialism, not any other ideology, that his book eulogized.
Nobody could doubt the acuity of Bell’s mind. But what can explain the long influence of a loosely organized collection of essays arguing a narrowly conceived thesis on the death of an ideology that has never been very important in the United States?
Timing, for one thing. The End of Ideology announced the end of a thirty-year nightmare dark with fanatics, apostles, and messiahs whom history had exposed as demagogues and monsters. The phrase “end of ideology” first entered widely into English circulation in 1955, between Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing him. That year the Congress for Cultural Freedom met in Milan, Italy, in a conference that featured Bell, Raymond Aron, Seymour Martin Lipset, and other end-of-ideologists. Edward Shils, also attending, reported a mood proud with vindication. “Have the Communists come to appear so preposterous to our Western intellectuals that it is no longer conceivable that they could be effectively subversive?” Shils wondered. “Is it now thought that there is no longer any danger of the working classes in the advanced Western countries falling for their propaganda?”
The danger lying in the past, Bell exorcised the ghost. He confirmed the generation of the 1930s in its repudiation of youthful idealism by baring “the ambiguities of theory,” “the complexities of life,” and “the exhaustion of utopia,” as he titled his book’s three sections. In the 1970s and 1980s, another generation of disenchanted radicals cottoned to the book’s skepticism. By 1995, when the TLS memorialized it alongside Friedrich von Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, the Soviet Union had failed in fact as well as in spirit. Events seemed to have proven Bell correct.
What is the legacy of The End of Ideology today? I think it lies in the sober, anti-romantic, wiser-than-thou style of political analysis and leadership on display on the night of January 25, hours after Bell died, in Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.