Born in a Parisian coffeehouse during the first year of the 19th century, Ideology has grown gigantic in our time. Infant Ideology was consecrated to an educational reform; the colossus Ideology that now bestrides the world is engaged successfully in the extirpation of culture.

There comes to my mind often, when someone innocently utters such phrases as “ideological framework” and “ideological consistency,” a passage in Evelyn Waugh’s satire Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1943). Two British scholars, just arrived in the capital of Neutralia, are being conducted to a cultural congress. Neutralia is limping toward recovery from the devastation of a civil war brought on by ideological passions; the memorials of that strife lie on all sides:

The underling leaned towards them from the front seat and pointed out places of interest. “Here,” he said, “the anarchists shot General Cardenas. Here syndico-radicals shot the auxiliary bishop. Here the Agrarian League buried alive ten Teaching Brothers. Here the bimetallists committed unspeakable atrocities on the wife of Senator Mendoza.”

Aye, the accomplishments of ideology are at once horrid and farcical: Democritus might laugh at them, but there is more than one sort of laughter, and one’s sense of humor is sorely tried when the ideologues move in next door. In essence an attempt to thrust down the throats of all humankind a set of abstract political dogmas, ideology continues at this writing to slaughter the masses in Indochina, in half of Africa, in Central America, in Afghanistan—in the name of the masses, of course. The very real Marxist sectaries of the Yemen cast into shadow the imaginary bimetallist ideologues of Neutralia.

No longer is it fantastic to suggest that all civilization may be brought down by furious ideology; nay, that by ideology’s frenzy the globe itself may be

Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

Since 1914, ideology has undone in many nations all those benefits of humanitarianism that John Stuart Mill and the other Saints of Rationalism expected to tumble from the cornucopia of Rational Progress during the 20th century. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride hard in much of the world just now; you know the faces of War, Famine, Pestilence. And who is the Fourth Horseman? Why, Giant Ideology, who commits such atrocities as would have horrified medieval men.

This being so, it is sufficiently amusing—at least it would have amused Democritus and Evelyn Waugh—to find editorial writers referring to “the ideology of free enterprise” or television newspersons instructing us that a “democratic ideology” is lacking in South Africa. It is still more interesting to encounter in Washington lion cubs of the Reagan Administration who seek conformity to an alleged “conservative ideology.” And one murmurs nil admirari on conversing with certain well-known journalists of advanced years who declare that America and the Free World require their own common ideology to set against Marxist ideology, fire fighting fire.

American confusion about this sinister word—Napoleon Bonaparte, by the way, was the first to call it sinister—began some decades ago. Early in the 50’s, a youngish hierarch of the late Moral Rearmament movement published a book entitled America Needs an Ideology—that ideology being MRA, naturally. Yet Moral Rearmament actually was no stern ideology, but merely a deliquescent pseudo-religion; and happily it has vanished from this land. Ideologies are made of sterner stuff. Also there have been numerous, and continuing, attempts to create an ideology of American democratism: four legs good, two legs bad, particularly in foreign affairs. Lyndon Johnson’s people justified the sending of many American divisions to Vietnam in the name of this ideology of democratism. But what America needs is distinctly not a good five-cent ideology.

John Adams knew this in 1813, when he wrote to a friend of the new term 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!”

As word and as concept, ideology has been suspect in America and Britain ever since John Adams’ time—or at least until very recently, when a good deal of discussion has been stirred up. Among books published on this subject have been Raymond Aron’s The Opium of the Intellectuals (1957), Thomas Molnar’s Utopia, the Perennial Heresy (1967), Lewis Feuer’s Ideology and the Ideologists (1975), Hans Earth’s Truth and Ideology (1976; originally published in Switzerland, 1945), and Kenneth Minogue’s Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology (1985); also chapters by Eric Voegelin, Gerhart Niemeyer, this present writer, and others; also several collections of essays on this theme by various hands. Yet such works appear to have made small impression upon either the intellectuals (as they would style themselves) who have gone over to ideology, or upon the young political activists of various persuasions in the United States.

So let us briefly consider the origin and development of the concept “ideology,” with an eye to diminishing the widespread incertitude about its signification. The word has passed through vicissitudes.

The word “ideology” emerges in Napoleonic times. Destutt de Tracy, the author of Les éléments d’idéologic (five volumes, 1801-15) was an abstract intellectual of the sort since grown familiar on the Left Bank, the favorite haunt of all budding ideologues, among them in recent decades the famous liberator of Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot. Tracy and his disciples intended a widespread reform of education, to be founded upon a science of ideas; they drew heavily upon the psychology of Condillac and more remotely upon that of John Locke. Rejecting religion and metaphysics, these original ideologues believe somewhat naively in a system of natural laws—a world away from Ciceronian or Thomistic natural law, one hastens to add—that could be discovered; and which, if conformed to, could become the foundation of universal harmony and contentment. Doctrines of self-interest, economic productivity, and personal liberty were bound up with these notions. Late-born children of the dying Enlightenment, the ideologues assumed that systematized knowledge derived from sensation could perfect society through ethical and educational methods and by well-organized political direction.

Such is the origin of the word ideology, and in some degree of the present understanding of the concept. In general, ideologues assume that the world can be governed, and perhaps transformed, by the “scientific” application of certain ideas to public and private life. (But those beneficent ideas must not be religious or metaphysical concepts.) Ideologues generally are enemies of religion, tradition, custom, convention, old constitutions; they denounce prejudice and prescription. (This is why, as H. Stuart Hughes wrote early in the 40’s, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”)

But the concept of ideology was altered considerably about the middle of the 19th century by Karl Marx and his school. Ideas are nothing better than the expressions of class interests, as related to economic production, Marx declared. Ideology, the alleged science of ideas, thus becomes a systematic apology for the claims of a class—nothing more.

Or, to put this argument in Marx’s own blunt and malicious terms, what has been called political philosophy is merely a mask for the economic self-seeking of oppressors. Ruling ideas and norms constitute a delusive mask upon the face of the dominant class, shown to the exploited “as a standard of conduct, partly to varnish, partly to provide moral support for, domination.” (Marx’s words to Engels.)

Yet the exploited, too, Marx says, develop systems of ideas to advance their revolutionary aims. So what we call Marxism is an ideology intended to achieve revolution, the triumph of the proletariat, and eventually communism. To the consistent Marxist, ideas have no value in themselves: they are worthwhile, as is all art, only as a means to achieve equality of condition and economic satisfaction. The Marxist derides the ideologies of other persuasions, but builds his own ideology with patient cunning.

Although the most powerful of ideologies today, Marxism is by no means total master of the field. We hear about us the clamors of at least a score of passionate ideologies: various forms of nationalism, negritude, feminism, fascism (a quasi-ideology, never fully fleshed out in Italy), Nazism (an ideology in embryo, Hannah Arendt believed), syndicalism, anarchism, social democracy, and Lord knows what all. Doubtless yet new forms of ideology will be concocted in the 21st century.

Professor Minogue, in the most recent book about ideology, uses the word “to denote any doctrine which presents the hidden and saving truth about the evils of the world in the form of social analysis. It is a feature of all such doctrines to incorporate a general theory of the mistakes of everybody else.” That “hidden and saving truth” is a complex of contrived falsifying “myths” about society, disguised as history. (Raymond Aron analyzes the three myths that have seduced French intellectuals: the myths of the Left, of the Revolution, of the Proletariat.)

Ideologues of all brands, from the beginning of the 19th century to the present, promise liberation from present dominations and powers, from present superstitions and prejudices. But when ideologues have triumphed, they have established new despotisms or squalid oligarchies. One thinks of the lines of Robert Frost:

They say the truth will set you free;
My truth will bind you slave to me.

In succinct definition, since the Second World War the word “ideology” usually has signified a dogmatic political theory which endeavors to substitute secular goals and doctrines for religious goals and doctrines; and which promises to overthrow present dominations so that the oppressed may be liberated. Ideology’s promises are what J.L. Talmon calls “political messianism.” The ideologue promises salvation in this world, hotly declaring that there is no other realm of being. This transformation of reality, to occur in time, is to be achieved through the destruction of existing institutions, initially through severe violence.

“Genuine ideologists are intensely theoretical,” Minogue points out, “a feature which is paradoxical in view of the ideological insistence upon the merely derivative status of ideas. But then, ideologies are, of all intellectual creations, the most riddled with paradox and deception.”

Intensely theoretical, yes, the inner circle of ideologues; but employing as their instruments men indifferent or hostile to intellectual pursuits, those “streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets” of Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, the terrorists of ideological warfare. Because the Marxist ideologue admits the existence of no truth but his own ideology, the terrorist is absolved of crimes and sins that otherwise might trouble even such a man; and thus persons who from an early age felt impulses to destroy, to burn, to torment, to kill are freed by ideology to indulge those appetites from the abyss. One sees the type best, perhaps, in Stefan Andres’ story “We Are God’s Utopia.” Since early in the 20th century, a number of important novels have delineated the ideologue-terrorist for us: Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent, Wyndham Lewis’ The Revenge for Love, Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God, and, of course, Solzhenitsyn’s fiction.

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. The evidence of ideological ruin is all about us today. How then can it be that the word “ideology,” and indeed the concept, too, retain great power in much of the world, and some even in America? The answer to that question is given in part by this observation from Raymond Aron: “When the intellectual feels no longer attached either to the community or the religion of his forebears, he looks to progressive ideology to fill the vacuum. The main difference between the progressivism of the disciple of Harold Laski or 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.”

Ideology provides sham religion and sham philosophy, comforting in its way to those who have lost or never have known genuine religious faith, and to those not sufficiently intelligent to apprehend real philosophy. The fundamental reason why we must set our faces against ideology—so wrote the wise Swiss editor Hans Barth—is that ideology is opposed to truth: it denies the possibility of truth in politics or in anything else, substituting economic motive and class interest for abiding norms. Ideology even denies human consciousness and power of choice. In Barth’s words, “The disastrous effect of ideological thinking in its radical form is not only to cast doubt on the quality and structure of the mind that constitute man’s distinguishing characteristic, but also to undermine the foundation of his social life.”

Ideology may offer attractions to the bored member of what Peter and Brigitte Berger call the Knowledge Class, who has cut himself off from religion and community, and would like to exercise power. Ideology may enchant young people, wretchedly schooled, who are zealous for any cause. And ideologues’ promises may win a following among social groups that feel somehow pushed to the wall—even though such people do not understand much of anything about the ideologues’ doctrines. The early composition of the Nazi party will suggest the pattern.

By an elaborate propaganda, calculated to destroy faith in existing institutions and in lawfully constituted authority, ideology thrusts out truth and clear perception of reality from the minds of its victims. Once possessed of power, ideologues silence all rival voices. Why permit dissent in Utopia?

The preceding description of ideology and its wiles is concurred in by much serious published analysis in Western Europe, Britain, and the United States—and by the many scholars who have escaped from the Soviet Union and other lands conquered by Giant Ideology. Is this alleged “science of ideas,” this substitute for religion, philosophy, and the politics of the possible, what is desired by the advocates of a proclaimed ideology to advance the interests of the United States or of the free world?

Why, presumably the “America Needs an Ideology” people are advocating something milder than undiluted ideology. They are not asking for fanaticism. No. But that is like expecting a woman to be partially chaste. The great advantage of ideology is the fanaticism it creates, enabling ideologues to sweep away present dominations and powers.

What some people really mean when they call for a “democratic ideology” is a formula for a civil religion, an ideology of Americanism, or of the Free World. (Does anybody suggest an ideology for the United Nations, founded upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?) A trouble with this civil-religion notion is that the large majority of Americans think they already have a religion for themselves, not got up by some department in Washington. If by some subtle process the approved civil religion were designed to supplant the congeries of creeds at present flourishing—why, such hostility toward belief in the transcendent is precisely the most ruinous characteristic of the existing virulent ideologies.

Yet possibly all that is intended by the enthusiasts for this proposed new anticommunist ideology is a declaration of political principles and economic concepts to be widely promulgated, legislatively approved as a guide to public policy, and taught in public schools. If this is all, then why insist upon labeling the things an ideology? (What might be the name for this new secular creed? Democratism? Democratic Capitalism? Sociocapitalism?) An innocent ideology is as unlikely a contraption as Christian Diabolism; to attach the sinister tag “ideology” would be like inviting friends to a harmless Halloween bonfire, but announcing the party as the New Holocaust.

If this “democratic ideology” should turn out, in practice, to be nothing more formidable than a national civics program for public schools, still it would need to be watched jealously. Cloying praise in every classroom of the beauties of democratic capitalism would bore most pupils and perhaps cause revulsion among the more intelligent. And it is not civics courses, primarily, that form minds and consciences of the rising generation: it is the study of literature, rather. What mischief has been done in that discipline is suggested by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. I should not wish to see what remains of genuine humane letters in the average public school supplanted by an official propaganda about the holiness of the American Way or the Free World Way.

During the late 60’s and early 70’s, I wandered over the land, appearing on campuses and television programs in opposition to such ideologues as Tom Hayden, Leonard Weinglass, Dick Gregory, Staughton Lynd, Ayn Rand, Malcolm X, William Kunstier, and Michael Harrington. Such debates foster a distaste for ideological enthusiasms, even among young Americans. Sometimes the element in those audiences most tolerant of my opinions was the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. The front rows of seats commonly were occupied by whatever ideological gang of students was strongest on that particular campus—Fidelistas, Maoists, Republic of New Africa militia, the craziest sects from the Academy of Lagado. Once I saw a bazooka being carried toward my lecture hall, and two elderly professors were among the band of the ideologically faithful who bore it.

So I am not of the opinion that it would be well to pour the heady wine of a new ideology down the throats of the American young. If one summons spirits from the vasty deep, can they be conjured back again? What we need to impart is political prudence, not political belligerence.

Ideology is the disease, not the cure. All ideologies, including the ideology of vox populi vox dei, are hostile to enduring order and justice and freedom. The Constitution of the United States was not framed by ideologues, two centuries ago; and an intelligent repudiation of all ideology might well be woven into our bicentennial celebrations.