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Brad Birzer’s essays of two of Russell Kirk’s many warnings against the evils of ideology and Steve Masty’s pertinent questions prompt me to offer the following thoughts.

About a decade ago, just after the 9/11 horrors, our colleague Robert Eden sent an email to the Hillsdale College faculty offering “some basic distinctions as we sort out the elements of Islamic teaching” in what, he predicted, will become a supercharged atmosphere (my words, a loose interpretation of his intention) filled with intellectual fog. He said, in part,

‘Ideology’ is a term that was introduced by the French political philosopher Destutt de Tracy in order to highlight the novelty and importance of the modern project of putting politics and social life on a rational scientific footing…

The neologism was deliberately formed in order to exclude teachings based upon divine revelation, with Christianity and Judaism of course chiefly in view; but the exclusion applies with equal force to Islam….The school of Ideologues for whom Tracy spoke sought to liberate science and reason from clerical supervision so that the Baconian project of the conquest of nature could transform social, political, and economic life unimpeded by the constraints of revealed law or revealed truth. The very term ideology bespeaks the culture-war….

The term has become vulgarized to the point that many otherwise educated people think that all religions are ideologies. This is a double misunderstanding. It blunts the cutting edge of the term ideology and forgets the original anti-theological and anti-ecclesiastical ire that the term was designed to assert unequivocally. And it renders unintelligible the forms of life, built upon faith in revealed law or a revealed teaching, of Islam, Judaism, and Christianitywhich the ideologues saw as the main alternative to the modern project based upon the scientific conquest of nature.

These wise and perceptive words remind us that the intent of the ideologues, and indeed the object of every modern revolution since the French, has been to marginalize or destroy traditional religion. It has been true of both violent and not-so-violent movements of pure rationalism in the West and the Far East. [A note here: Ironically, of heresy in the Middle East. Islam has yet to produce its own modernity, so its fanatics seek to “restore” something that never was. But the result is the same. It is not very helpful to use western ideological terms to describe what is happening in the Muslim world. “Islamofascism” has no more meaning than would “Islamopragmatism.”] Conducting “long marches through the institutions” is just as old in this enterprise as attempting violent overthrows of an existing order.

Russell Kirk and many others have long known that one of the chief weapons of the ideologues has been the pre-emption (or obfuscation) of words. “Gay,” for example, or “equality.” If they can convince us that “ideology” is equivalent to “any ideas tending to make sense of the world,” or even a synonym for “principle,” then the ideology itself becomes simply a part of the normal dialogue, and not something with an evil intent.

Without going on and on, I cast a vote for continuing to make Russell’s distinctions, with Robert Eden’s clarifications, and to restore the meaning of ideology in the contemporary consciousness, vigorously and without compromise.

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1 reply to this post
  1. John, can linguistic pre-emption (I call it 'wordnapping') be played to advantage as 'Yankee,' 'Tory' and other once-derisive terms were liberated and turned into proud banners by their intended victims? Look at what spirit and life Dr Kirk breathed into the word 'conservative'! If we choose to revivify the word 'ideology' and return it to its originally foul meaning, we may start by branding some people 'ideologues,' which retains some of the original, pejorative connotations. The enemy's lexicographers are on thin ice here: to describe someone as being an ideologue still smacks of knee-jerk eccentricity, madness or worse. Rather like the 18th C meaning of 'enthusiast,' which meant emotionally or mentally unbalanced.

    For someone to babble 'my ideology is Americanism' (or anything else) is word-ground to be retaken, but to ask if (say) President Obama is 'a nice chap but something of an ideologue, don't you think?' means hubristic and cuckoo. Yes?

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