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As the politicos battle it out (or, at least make a show of battling it out) in D.C., I can’t help but be struck by Kirk’s brief but solid definition of “ideology” from his “Errors of Ideology.”

Unleashed by the French Revolution, ideologies have plagued the world for well over 200 years now. They continue to infect. We, the infected. . . . and, it festers and festers.

From Russell Kirk, “The Errors of Ideology.”

Ideology, in short, is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells. I set down below some of the vices of ideology.

  1. Ideology is inverted religion, denying the Christian doctrine of salvation through grace in death, and substituting collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution. Ideology inherits the fanaticism that sometimes has afflicted religious faith, and applies that intolerant belief to concerns secular.
  2. Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. This narrow vision brings about civil war, extirpation of “reactionaries”, and the destruction of beneficial functioning social institutions.
  3. Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. Thus fierce factions are raised up among the ideologues themselves, and they war mercilessly and endlessly upon one another, as did Trotskyites and Stalinists.

Now I contrast with those three failings certain principles of the politics of prudence.

  1. As I put it earlier, ideology is inverted religion. But the prudential politician knows that “Utopia” means “Nowhere”; that we cannot march to an earthly Zion; that human nature and human institutions are imperfectible; that aggressive “righteousness” in politics ends in slaughter. True religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state.
  2. Ideology makes political compromise impossible, I pointed out. The prudential politician, au contraire, is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall. The ideological atrocities of the “Third World” in recent decades illustrate this point: the political massacres of the Congo, Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Cambodia, Uganda, Yemen, Salvador, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Prudential politics strives for conciliation, not  extirpation.
  3. Ideologies are plagued by ferocious factionalism, on the principle of brotherhood—or death. Revolutions devour their children. But prudential politicians, rejecting the illusion of an Absolute Political Truth before which every citizen must abase himself, understand that political and economic structures are not mere products of theory, to be erected one day and demolished the next; rather, social institutions develop over centuries, almost as if they were organic. The radical reformer, proclaiming himself omniscient, strikes down every rival, to arrive at the Terrestrial Paradise more swiftly. Conservatives. . . have the habit of dining with the opposition.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Dear Brad, et. al., Do we need a new definition for ideology or a new word altogether? Dr Kirk well describes the ideologies of his era: of the Lenins and Stalins, the Maos and the Hitlers, the Red Brigades, the Pol Pots and the Senderos Luminosos. But his definition no longer quite fits our modern ideologies. I'll grant that radical Islamism fits the bill in general except that, as properly speaking a heresy of Muslim doctrine, it neither tries to supplant religion nor bring paradise on earth: it seeks to 'restore' by violence an alleged divinely-commanded temporal order that in many respects never existed. Then what of 'soft ideologies' including Randian Objectivism or Fabian Socialism or Secular Humanism or Liberation Theology that tick most of the boxes but are not violent? None of these (pace Objectivism) seem as riven by factionalism as, say, Communism was. All build 'terrestrial hells' of one sort or another, yet most embrace compromise in order to take us there.

    The virus has mutated but surely not left us, and TIC could do the world some good by either defining the new, modern ideology or by reworking Dr Kirk's description to cover the broader ideological genome. This shouldn't be too hard. Anyone fancy a try?

  2. Okay, I’ll have a go, cobbling together bits of Kirk.
    Ideology: a preconceived and internally-consistent approach to reform one or more aspects of human behaviour, based primarily upon abstract reasoning while paying insufficient attention to tradition or experience.

  3. As Mark Shea is fond of saying, "Ideology is the triumph of the All Explaining Theory of Everything over reality."

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