DISCUSSION: What Is Ideology? A Conversation with Mark Shiffman and James Matthew Wilson</a> (James Matthew Wilson, Mark Shiffman and Austin Walker, 6/27/24, Public Discourse)

Mark Shiffman: Thank you, James. And thank you all for being here. I’m extraordinarily grateful for this event. I am grateful especially to James for being more responsible than anyone else for the fact that this appears in print. And of course, I’m grateful for all of you turning out tonight and very, very grateful to the Lumen Christi Institute. And I should say, partly as an apologia for myself, the fact that it took me ten years to get through the University of Chicago is in significant measure due to the fact that when Thomas Levergood started up the Lumen Christi Institute, he roped me into doing all of the nitty-gritty stuff that he couldn’t do because he was the idea man and the salesman. But those were marvelous times, and Lumen Christi has been extraordinarily important in my own development as a scholar, as a thinker, as a Catholic. So this is especially marvelous to be here on this occasion.

My contention in this book is that the word ideology gives us a helpful name for a particular form of political thinking, a form that is distorting and destructive, and from which we should all strive to free our minds if we need to, and most of us do. This liberation, however, requires seeing clearly what the word means and why what it names is bad. So the brief remarks I’m going to give here will fall into three parts: a short history of the word ideology, a concise description of how ideological thinking operates, and some remarks about how it is in direct conflict with a Christian understanding of created order and human dignity.

We use the word ideology all the time to mean a set of beliefs that provide a rationale for some political agenda, and of course, it’s true that political agendas do generally have central organizing ideas, if they’re organized agendas, but that doesn’t mean that they should all be described as ideologies. So we need to know what we’re saying when we use this word, and that requires a little bit of linguistic history. Now this history begins very, very exactly in 1796, but I think it’s more interesting to fast-forward seventeen years to 1813.

In 1813, John Adams wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, and in this letter, he was referring to a disagreement they had had years before about the French Revolution. Adams says to Jefferson:

You [were] well persuaded in your own mind that the Nation would Succeed in establishing a free Republican Goverment: I was as well persuaded, in mine, that a project of Such a Government, over five and twenty millions people, when four and twenty millions and five hundred thousands of them could neither write nor read: was as unnatural irrational and impracticable; as it would be over the Elephants Lions Tigers Panthers Wolves and Bears in the Royal Menagerie, at Versailles. Napoleon has lately invented a Word, which perfectly expresses my opinion at that time and ever Since. He calls the Project Ideology.

What Adams is suggesting here is that the word “ideology” is a really good name for a certain kind of political thinking, one that we might describe as an intellectual scheme of reform that’s full of enthusiasm and confidence about its imagined benefits, but which suffers from a lack of any clear vision of relevant political realities. And I think he’s right. It’s a very good word for that kind of thing. But it hasn’t generally turned out that that’s how we use ideology in intellectual and academic discourse.

So now I’m going to tell that story and come back to the Adams sense of the word. Jefferson, in reading this letter, would know very well that Napoleon did not invent this word. And he would know that in 1796 it was coined in Paris by Antoine Destutt de Tracy to describe his theory of how our ideas originate from sense impressions and abstraction. Tracy’s theory combines what we would call epistemology and cognitive psychology to propose an individualistic and empiricist account of human intelligence. And Jefferson thought this was great. He had Tracy’s works translated into English and published in America. There weren’t a lot of books published in America at that point.

Tracy, in this, is following in the footsteps of John Locke, and he’s reaching similar conclusions about politics. That is to say, a politics of liberal individualism that seems to follow from these premises about knowledge and where knowledge and our ideas come from. And what Napoleon is expressing is scorn for this whole thing by using the word sarcastically. He is deriding the kind of deductive argumentation for political arrangements based on rationalistic philosophical premises by people who don’t actually know how to make things happen like Napoleon does.

This is the usually unknown origin of this word. But the real history of the word as we know it begins with Karl Marx. In 1846, Marx co-authored with Friedrich Engels a short book called The German Ideology. And this book criticized the dominant Hegelianism of the time, which considered the formation of ideas and the relationship of ideas to practical realities, that ideas somehow are the fundamental thing and they get played out in the world according to their inner logic, they get institutionalized, and so on. Marx, in criticizing this theory, was using the word “ideology” in continuity with the way it originated. It’s a term for a theory of ideas and one that he’s criticizing. And Marx’s own theory is that ideas don’t precede practice, they don’t lead to practice. Rather, ideas are the products of practical and economic realities. By Marx’s account, those economic realities shape our worldviews. The ideas of the dominant class are unconsciously tailored to justify their domination. In Marxist thought, then, ideology comes to mean the legitimating worldview imposed by the dominant class.

Marx himself insisted that these ideas were not worth taking seriously in themselves since when, finally, the Communist Revolution set the whole economic order straight, those ideas would just disappear. But a century later, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recognized that the battle between different social and political agendas was a real site of conflict with real effects in the world. And, in spelling this out, he gave birth to what we now know as cultural Marxism, which seeks to delegitimize capitalism and liberal order through ideological combat by taking over cultural institutions like universities, media, and entertainment and installing the correct ideology to lead the way into the glorious future. So that’s the history of how the word is mainly used and then we use it indiscriminately to talk about people’s ideas about politics.

Now, this critical sense in which Adams used it made a comeback in the middle of the twentieth century, primarily through Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, in her 1950 study The Origins of Totalitarianism. According to Arendt, the true character of ideology comes clearly into view only in the middle of the twentieth century when totalitarian movements come to power and, as she says, proceed to change reality in accordance with their ideological claims. She says: “an ideology is quite literally what its name indicates. It is the logic of an idea. Its thought movement does not spring from experience but is self-generated. And it transforms the one and only point that is taken and accepted from experienced reality”—like there is class conflict in a certain sense—“into an axiomatic premise. Once it has established its premise, its point of departure, experiences no longer interfere with ideological thinking, nor can it be taught by reality. So when they attain power then, ideological movements treat human affairs,” as Arendt says, “with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality.”

And Marxism is a very good example. Fascism, Nazism, Randian libertarianism: all drastic simplifications of reality in accord with a very narrow set of ideas. This demand for unrealistic consistency in human affairs determines how ideology operates. It makes ideology inherently violent—in at least three ways that I would like to describe very briefly.