Classic Kirk Essays

The Drug of Ideology

From Russell Kirk’s Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics, 1984.

In our age, most of the world has fallen into profound political disorder; and while the United States may seem an island of tranquility, comparatively speaking, in a sea of troubles, nevertheless we are not secure. In politics, as in letters, abnormity gains ground. . . . 

One may discern the principal causes of social disorder. Some of them are the consequences of swift economic and technological change, and those cannot be examined at any length here. But also a social order begins to disintegrate—or is supplanted by a very different domination—when political custom and political theory are overwhelmed by ideology; and when established political institutions are abandoned or permitted to decline, out of popular indifference and ignorance. I am concerned with the desertion from political theory and tradition, and what may be done about it; with the neglect of institutions that maintain order and justice and freedom, and with the results of such dereliction. The permanent things of the commonwealth stand in peril, throughout the world. Our first necessity is to understand the nature of ideology.

“Ideology” does not mean political theory or principle, even though many journalists and some professors commonly employ the term in that sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism—and, more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning. The ideologue—Communist or Nazi or of whatever affiliation—maintains that human nature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means, though these means ordinarily involve violent social revolution. The ideologue immanentizes religious symbols and inverts religious doctrines.

What religion promises to the believer in a realm beyond time and space, ideology promises to everyone—except those who have been “liquidated” in the process—in society. Salvation becomes collective and political. “When the intellectual feels no longer attached either to the community or the religion of his forbears,” Raymond Aron writes in The Opium of the Intellectuals, “he looks to progressive ideology to fill the vacuum. The main difference between the progressivism of the disciple of Harold Laski of Bertrand Russell and the Communism of the disciple of Lenin concerns not so much the content as the style of the ideologies and the allegiance they demand.”

As a term of modern politics and sociology, “ideology” may be defined tentatively. It is an alleged science of politics, dogmatic and often utopian, closely allied with the interests of a particular social class or political sect. Several powerful ideologies or quasi-ideologies have been at work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This word has passed through complicated changes of meaning, however, and often is misapplied.

In France, at the close of the eighteenth century, the term was employed by the disciples of Condillac, particularly Destutt de Tracy, whose Les éléments d’idéologie appeared in five volumes between 1801 and 1815. The original “ideologists” or “ideologues” believed that all knowledge is derived from sensation, and that a science of ideas could be developed upon this basis, describing the history and evolution of thought, and applicable to politics, ethics, and pedagogy. Thus originally “ideology” was a kind of climax of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, an attempt to systematize and apply knowledge obtained from sensory perception. The intellectual origins of ideology are described by a number of writers, perhaps most recently in two books by Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual and Utopia, the Perennial Heresy.

Napoleon, in 1812, looking with disfavor upon the ideological school, ridiculed Destutt de Tracy and his associates as “ideologists,” men of hopelessly abstract and fanciful views, unacquainted with the realities of the civil social order. From an early date, accordingly, “ideology” and “ideologist” or “ideologue” became terms of derogation, implying misguided intellectuality as banefully applied to social concerns. Thus John Adams, in 1813, wrote of Ideology: “Our English words, Idiocy or Idiotism, express not the force or meaning of it. It is presumed its proper definition is the science of Idiocy. And a very profound, abstruse, and mysterious science it is. You must descend deeper than the divers in the Dunciad to make any discoveries, and after all you will find no bottom. It is the bathos, the theory, the art, the skill of diving and sinking in government. It was taught in the school of folly; but alas! Franklin, Turgot, Rochefoucauld, and Condorcet, under Tom Paine, were the great masters of that academy!”

“Ideology” does not mean political theory or principle, even though many journalists and some professors commonly employ the term in that sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism—and, more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.

The chief political thinkers of the English speaking world, at least, have abjured ideology. In his Logic, John Stuart Mill declares, “I would willingly have . . . persevered to the end in the same abstinence which I have hitherto observed from ideological discussions.” In America and Britain, long hostile toward what Burke called “the abstract metaphysician” in politics, the concept of ideology always has been unpopular—at least until quite recently.

About the middle of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and his disciples considerably altered the meaning of “ideology.” According to Marx—particularly in his Poverty of Philosophy—ideology is a cloak for class interests, an outwardly rational instrument of propaganda, a veil of argument produced to disguise and defend an established social order. In Marx’s phrases, “The same men who establish social relations conformably with their material productivity, produce also the principles, the ideas, the categories, conformable with their social relations.” Thus Marx attacked the social theories of his own time and of earlier ages as ideologies meant to maintain capitalism, feudalism, imperialism, and other systems.

Marxism itself, however, rapidly developed into an ideology, or dogmatic system of politics professing to found its structure upon a “reality” ascertained by sensory perception alone.

In the present century, Karl Mannheim distinguished between the “particular” and the “total” meanings of ideology. “The former,” Mannheim wrote, “assumes that this or that interest is the cause of a given lie or deception. The latter presupposes that there is a correspondence between a given social situation and a given perspective, point of view, or apperception mass.” In general, Mannheim takes the view that ideology is irrational, and in modern times merges with utopianism.

Since the Second World War, in serious discussions, “ideology” usually has meant a dogmatic political theory which endeavors to substitute secular doctrines and goals for religious doctrines and goals—what J. L. Talmon calls “political messianism.” The ideologue promises social, rather than personal, salvation; and this salvation, occurring in time, is to be achieved through a radical transformation of social institutions, involving the destruction of existing law and institutions, and probably requiring violence against the present possessors of power. On principles allegedly rational and scientific, ideology is meant to reconstruct and perfect society and human nature.

It follows that the various ideologies which have arisen since the concluding years of the eighteenth century—Jacobinism, socialism, communism, anarchism, syndicalism, fascism, Naziism, and others—all are opposed by conservatism, which is founded upon the concept that politics is the art of the possible, and the concept that the old and tried is preferable to the new and untried. In the aphorism of H. Stuart Hughes, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”

Yet, as I remarked earlier, today “ideology” frequently is used as if the term were synonymous with “political philosophy” or “political theory.” Tacitly, this assumption suggests that any theoretical foundation for politics or sociology must be involved either with social utopianism (often fanatical) or with veiled class interests, or with both. This corruption of the term, produced in part by a vulgarizing of the concepts of Marx and Mannheim, makes sober examination of social first principles more difficult, particularly in a time when ideological passions and prejudices retain power throughout most of the world.

Real thinking is a painful process; and the ideologue resorts to the anesthetic of social utopianism, escaping the tragedy and grandeur of true human existence by giving his adherence to a perfect dream-world of the future. Reality he stretches or chops away to conform to his dream-pattern of human nature and society. For the concepts of salvation and damnation, he substitutes abstractly virtuous “progressives” and abstractly vicious “reactionaries.”

The twentieth-century ideologue, after the manner of Robespierre, thinks that his secular dogmas are sustained by the Goddess Reason; he prides himself inordinately upon being “scientific” and “rational”; and he is convinced that all opposition to his particular wave of the future is selfish obscurantism, when it is not direct vested interest. One may add that ever since the modern scholar began to call himself an “intellectual,” he has tended to fall addict to the opiate of ideology; for the word “intellectual” itself, used as a noun of persons, implies an overweening confidence in Reason with a capital R, to the exclusion of faith, custom, consensus, humility, and sacred mystery.

The ideologue, in brief, is one of Orwell’s new-style men “who think in slogans and talk in bullets.” For the ideologue, humankind may be divided into two classes: the comrades of Progress, and the foes attached to reactionary interests. All human actions may be judged in terms of ideological motive, the ideologue is convinced. An African leader who wishes to settle for the practicable and to maintain amicable relationships with Europeans, for instance, must be a tool of “colonialists” or in the pay of a sinister capitalistic cartel; it is inconceivable that such a leader should be sincere in his course of action. On the other hand, a revolutionary, in Africa or elsewhere, always is right: just conceivably he may be over-zealous on occasion, but the purity of his motives is beyond question. The ideologues are Burckhardt’s “terrible simplifiers.” They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to men possessed by devils.

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Ideology and American Society

The American soil is not well prepared for pure ideology. Half a century ago, Santayana wrote that “it will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.” The hammering of ideology has been heard since then, but political religion has not yet triumphed. Though, as Aron knows, the United States has its political illusions, these are not precisely identical with the illusions of the French intellectual of the Left: “The ‘American way of life’ is the negation of what the European intellectual means by the word ideology,” Aron remarks. Americanism does not formulate itself as a system of concepts or propositions; it knows nothing of the “collective savior,” the end of history, the determining cause of historical “becoming,” or the dogmatic negation of religion; it combines respect for the constitution, homage for individual initiative, a humanitarianism inspired by strong but vague beliefs which are fairly indifferent to the rivalries between the churches (only Catholic “totalitarianism” is considered disquieting), the worship of science and efficiency. It does not involve any detailed orthodoxy or official doctrine. It is learned at school, and society enforces it. Conformism if you like, but a conformism which is rarely felt to be tyrannical, since it does not forbid free discussion in matters of religion, economics, or politics.

Yet a hankering after ideology has existed since early times in America, though never well satisfied; and at moments, during the past forty or fifty years, it seemed as if ideology were about to capture the American mind. That ideology, if it had come to exercise a hegemony over American thought, would have borne the name of Liberalism. Communism, though it contrived to entrench itself in some high places among American intellectuals, never attracted so great a share of them as went over to Marxism in France or Germany or Italy or even Britain; while Fascism took no root here at all.

Something called Liberalism, nevertheless, became very nearly a secular orthodoxy among American writers and (more especially) American professors. No one was quite sure what Liberalism amounted to—which kept it from becoming a full-grown ideology. To some, Liberalism meant anti-religious opinions; to others, socialism, or a managed economy; to a different set, absolute liberty of private conduct, untrammeled by law or tradition; to a number, perpetual doubt for the sake of doubting; to one lot, old-fangled Benthamism.

This Liberal secular orthodoxy is decaying now, to the alarm of its principal champions, some of whom defend it with the zeal of genuine ideologues, although they are not quite sure just what they are defending. Nowadays these champions, confronted with the revival of conservative ideas, alternate between the argument that conservatism is getting nowhere at all, and the contention that conservatism is so dreadfully powerful as to drive persecuted liberals into holes and corners.

As a matter of fact, the precepts of Liberalism still dominate a great many American writers and professors, who sometimes are intolerant in the name of liberal toleration; but the odds are that this Liberal orthodoxy cannot now harden into a true ideology. The fantastics of the New Left dearly would love to embrace a rigorous ideology; but they fall out so much among themselves, and within themselves, that no body of secular dogmas takes form. America needs nothing less than it needs ideology. Not abstractions, but prudence, prescription, custom, tradition, and constitution have governed the American people. We have been saved from ideology by political tradition. We still subscribe, however confusedly, to the norms of politics; we still cherish the permanent things.

For nearly two centuries, the outward forms of government in this nation have altered little. Although during the past four decades, and particularly during the past ten years, the actual functioning of our political system has changed rapidly, still the facade of the political edifice looks much as it used to. Within, nevertheless, the house is being transformed—even if few desire a radical transformation. No system of laws and institutions is immutable. Can the American Republic direct such change into actions which will reconcile with our historical experience and our prescriptive institutions that spirit of the age which now shakes the house?

Change, as Burke said, is the means of our preservation: as the human body exhausts old tissues and takes on new, so must any vigorous society. Yet rash and mindless change, striking to the heart of society, may destroy the continuity which invigorates a nation. The character of change in America probably will be determined, for good or ill, within the next few years.

Whatever our civil discontents at present, we stand in little peril of a political revolution which would destroy our national foundations. The American people remain, in some ways, the most conservative in the world—even though their conservatism is not so much the product of reflection as it is of habit, custom, material interests, and attachment to certain documents, most notably the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Our difficulty, indeed, is not just now the clutch of ideology, but rather complacency—the smug general assumption that the civil social order, in essence, always will be for our sons what it was for our fathers.

“With conservative populations,” Brooks Adams wrote, “slaughter is nature’s remedy.” He referred to a complacent democratic conservatism of the crowd. If American order, justice, and freedom are to endure, some of us must look into the first principles of politics and apply the wisdom of our ancestors to the troubles of our time. To preserve all the benefits of American society—which may be lost not through revolution, but perhaps in a fit of absence of mind—we must turn political philosophers, as did our ancestors in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Like the English, the Americans usually have been reluctant to embark upon abstract political speculation. Except for the period just before, during, and after the Revolution, and—to a lesser extent—the years before and immediately after the Civil War, we have produced little political philosophy; we have trusted, instead, to constitution, custom, convention, consensus, and the wisdom of the species.

Indeed, the Declaration and the Constitution, though drawn up by men of philosophical knowledge and power, are not in themselves manuals of political philosophy. The Declaration of 1776 is simply a declaration—and a highly successful piece of immediate political propaganda; such philosophical concepts as find expression therein are so mistily expressed as to mean all things to all men, then and now. The Constitution is not a tract at all, but a practical instrument of government, molded in part by necessary practical compromises.

We will not repudiate the Declaration, nor much alter the formal Constitution. Yet no society can be bound by parchment. With vertiginous speed, the character of American society is being altered. Can a people whose modes of living, economy, and diversions differ radically from those of the eighteenth century continue to live in harmony and prosperity under a political system developed in very different circumstances? Can a people of whom the immense majority now dwell in megalopolis, for instance, govern themselves on the old principles of American territorial democracy?

For my part, I do not think that we could construct a brand-new constitution better calculated to reconcile the claims of order and the claims of freedom than does our old Constitution—whatever its anomalies and difficulties today. If that is true, then we will do well to seek means for reinvigorating the Constitution and making sure it deals adequately with the conditions of the twentieth century; otherwise it may be altered out of recognition by an extravagant “judicial reinterpretation,” unsupported either by precedent or by public consensus—or, in the long run, it may be discarded altogether by an impatient Executive Force, Congress, and people.

And we must remind ourselves that beneath any formal constitution—even beneath our Constitution, the most enduringly successful of such formal documents—lies an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define, but really more powerful: the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.

So the examination of our present discontents cannot be confined to an exercise in formal constitutional law. To discuss the future of American politics, we must confess that, vastly important though they are, the Declaration and the Constitution do not constitute the be-all and end-all of political wisdom; and that, when the file affords no precedent, we must turn from the legal brief to political philosophy.

Recourse to political first principles is attended by risks. Scarcely anything could be more ruinous than to turn the American people into a set of half-schooled coffee-house philosophers, ideologues bent upon gaining Utopia instanter, terrible simplifiers in politics. Yet in the exigencies of our decade, a people cannot govern themselves wholly by the decisions and the rhetoric of 1776 and 1787. The intellectual and political leaders of our age have the duty of guiding public opinion into prudent consideration of the means for harmonizing our prescriptive politics with modern conditions that require some tolerable action. I am saying that there exists real danger of our drifting mindlessly into the mass-age, unaware that order and justice and freedom are fragile; and that today, as much as in 1776 or 1787, we need to discuss questions concerning the vitality of the good civil social order.

Ever since the Civil War, political thought has languished in the United States. For important political theory almost always is developed out of a time of troubles, when thinking men, forced to examine their first principles, seek means to avert the imminent collapse of order, so as to restore some measure of justice and security to a wounded society. The political writings of Plato and Aristotle came out of such an age. So did Cicero’s works, and Dante’s, and Hobbes’s, and Machiavelli’s, and Hooker’s, and Locke’s, Burke’s, and Marx’s. The nature of the confusion which provokes the exposition of political theory may be the inadequacy of an old order, morally and administratively, as it was in the society of Calvin and of Rousseau; or the confusion may be the consequence of a new order’s search for sanction, as it was in the society of Bodin or of Bentham. Doubt and violence are the parents of social speculation. Prescription, legal precedent, and muddling through suffice for ages or nations that experience no serious threat to things established.

Thus the political ideas of Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, though rooted in English and colonial experience and mightily influenced by the legacy of English political philosophy, took form as prudent endeavors to restore order and justice to a commonwealth distressed by revolution. . . .

And we must remind ourselves that beneath any formal constitution—even beneath our Constitution, the most enduringly successful of such formal documents—lies an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define, but really more powerful: the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.

The genius of American politics, as Daniel Boorstin suggests, consists in an innocence of abstract doctrine and theoretic dogma; and this is quite as true of the genius of English politics. Yet possibly the immunity of these nations from the curse of ideology has resulted not so much from a deliberate contempt for theory, as from two peculiar advantages that today are much diminished: first, a comparative physical isolation from other powers that made possible the postponement of grave decisions; second, an underlying set of moral and political assumptions, common to nearly everyone in these societies, which were the products of a venerable historic experience, and which served the purpose that political dogmas serve in nations less governed by general prejudice, prescription, and custom.

Yet a time may come in the history of nations when the previous security against foreign intervention is destroyed, and when tradition and established usage are so weakened that they cannot stand unbuttressed against the assaults of ideology. Such an era is America’s near the close of the sixties. The dissolution of America’s old political and military isolation requires no comment; we survived by a single generation the end of Britain’s comparative isolation. The breaking of the cake of custom is the subject of many books, though all its intricacies have not yet been explored. It must suffice to say here that with the triumph of modern technology, the ascendancy of general literacy and secularized schooling, the extreme mobility and fluidity of twentieth-century American society, the disappearance of many elements of authority and class, and the diffusion of positivistic ideas—why, tradition and custom in the United States, though by no means effaced, have lost much of their old power. We live, then, in an insecure society, doubtful of its future, an island of comparative but temporary sanctuary in a sea of revolution; and neither the old isolation nor the old received opinions of the mass of men seem calculated to hold out unassisted against the physical force of revolutionary powers and the moral innovations of modern ideologies. This is just such a time as has required and produced, repeatedly in the course of history a reexamination of first principles and a considered political philosophy.

Copyright © The Russell Kirk Legacy, LLC


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