The Corner

Politics & Policy

In Defense of Ideology


Lee Edwards has a nice essay up today on the homepage laying out his primer for NRI Fellows on the question, “What is Conservatism?”

I am a fan of Lee’s, and I have no substantive quarrel with anything he says. It’s a very good introduction to the topic.

But — you know there was going to be a “but”–– he writes:

Conservatism is a philosophy, not an ideology. It is the collective wisdom of conservatives such as Evans, Kirk, Goldwater, Buckley, and Abraham Lincoln, who when asked what conservatism is replied, “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”

I understand what Lee is saying here. There is a very old and perfectly respectable argument that “ideology” is bad, a kind of a false mental construct that people rely on to make sense of the world. I was on a panel with Charles Kesler recently, and he took a similar swipe at ideology. Philosophy in general and conservatism in particular are supposed to be grounded in reality and facts, not false political abstractions. That’s why Russell Kirk used to quote H. Stuart Hughs on how “conservatism is the negation of ideology.”

I think this is wrong. Or it’s right, but only if you define ideology in this way. And I don’t think that’s necessary or correct. An adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried is every bit as ideological as its opposite orientation.

I think ideology is simply a worldview. We all have a worldviews: i.e., checklists of principles and generalizations that we think are both true and valuable. Allow me to quote myself for convenience’s sake. In my (horribly titled) book The Tyranny of Clichés, I write:

For the moment, consider instead the German synonym Weltanschauung, which means a “worldview” or “an orientation to how you see the world.” Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (to whom I am indebted) once remarked: “I know conservatives who say yes to Weltanschauung and no to ideology, but they seem incapable of distinguishing between them (not surprisingly, because there is no distinction).” Look up ideology and Weltanschauung in various dictionaries and often the most pronounced difference is in the spelling.

The irony of the modern (mis)use of “ideology” as a kind of false consciousness or product of brainwashing is that we get it from Marx — and Napoleon. Ideology was first conceived of by French liberal philosophers as the study of ideas: Biology is the study of life (bio), zoology the study of animals, etc. Ideology would be the study of ideas. But as the Little Corporal consolidated power, he coined — or at least claimed to coin — the term “ideologue” to mean someone so ensorcelled by dangerous or revolutionary ideas that they could not be trusted. As he became more statist, Napoleon turned on the intellectuals that he once supported, calling them “Windbags and ideologues who have always fought the existing authority.”

“As Napoleon’s position weakened both at home and abroad, his attacks on ideology became more sweeping and vehement,” writes historian John B. Thompson. “Nearly all kinds of religious and philosophical thought were condemned as ideology. The term itself had become a weapon in the hands of an emperor struggling desperately to silence his opponents and to sustain a crumbling regime.”

Decades later, Karl Marx took Napoleon’s idea of ideology and built the whole construct of “false consciousness” and similar drek out of it. At least Napoleon’s original “ideologues” chose their worldviews; Marx’s were brainwashed by their class status or “privilege” (a familiar argument even today).

I understand that this is ultimately an argument about labels. But I like such arguments. More to the point, I don’t think the distinction people make between ideology, worldview, and philosophy does the work they think it does in the real world. There are people who subscribe to an existentialist or nihilist philosophy. In practical terms, they also act in accordance to an existentialist or nihilist worldview or ideology. In debates, when someone claims that his opponent is being overly “ideological,” what he’s really saying is that his opponent is simply wrong about something.

But it’s also worse than that because it steals a claim of objectivity unearned by argument. If I say, “You’re an ideologue, while I’m just a pragmatist or a realist,” I’m implying that you are ignoring facts because of some kind of irrational brainwashing. We see this constantly in debates where pro-lifers are “ideologues” but pro-choicers are simply advocates of “reproductive rights” or “women’s health.” The simple fact is that both the pro-choice and pro-life positions are equally “ideological” or, if you prefer, “philosophical.” They simply start from different premises and place more weight on different facts. Indeed, the use of the phrase “women’s health” is more ideologically distorting than the phrase “pro-life.” Activists use “women’s health” as an ideologically freighted term to refer almost exclusively to abortion rights — not cervical or breast cancer or any other issue affecting women’s health. In other words, the anti-ideological language is the more abstract and unrealistic language.

Ideology is really just a system of generalization about how the world works — and how we should behave in it. There is nothing wrong with generalizations, so long as you understand that they are generalizations and that reality is often messier and more complicated than a rule of thumb. That’s one reason why I put so much emphasis on comfort with contradiction as an essential component of the conservative temperament — and ideology.

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