Those of us who have a reached a certain age remember the time when a popular cliché declared the “end of ideology.” The idea was first formulated in 1960 in a book of the same title by Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell.1 For the next few decades, the idea that ideologies were a phenomenon of the past, and that they were fading away, remained popular among intellectuals. It seemed to find its final confirmation in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of communism as a worldwide political movement. Today, however, the idea that ideologies are fading seems naïve. A cursory look at today’s major cultural-political movements in Europe and North America shows that they are often highly ideological, in the sense that they tend to embrace rigid theoretical narratives, which claim general explanatory power and are more or less impervious to experience. An obvious example is racial politics in the U.S. The pragmatic and “moral” approach of the old civil rights movement of the 1960s, rooted in the experience of the black church, has been largely replaced by a formalized theoretical discourse (most famously “critical race theory”) with Marxist and post-structuralist roots. Similar trends can be easily recognized in the movements rooted in the sexual revolution, e.g., in the polemics against the “patriarchy” or various types of “normativity.” As usual, ideological movements on the left have produced echoes on the right, in white supremacist or neo-nationalist groups or in “incel” culture. Arguably, the most enduring and influential right-wing ideology in the U.S. is Randian libertarianism, which really never went out of fashion, although its proponents seem rather unaware of its ideological character.
In fact, as a European living in the U.S. for many years, I like to complain that often Americans (especially on the “liberal” side) are not fully aware of the nature and inner workings of ideological thinking in general. Their understanding of ideology tends to be fairly generic, as if the word just denoted any general cultural-historical vision applied to politics and did not represent a specific historical-philosophical development. Here, inspired by the works of eminent thinkers from the last century such as Augusto Del Noce, Hanna Arendt, and Luigi Giussani, I will argue that, in fact, ideology is a very specific phenomenon tied to deep historical-philosophical currents. I will begin with a very brief overview of the historical origins and definition of the term ideology, and suggest that the expansion of ideological politics is a typical development that accompanies the secularization of previously Christian societies. Then I will discuss a couple of essential features of ideology as a forma mentis, and finally I will comment on how one should respond to it.
Ideology’s Marxist Roots
Today not many people remember that the word ideology was born in the early 19th century, at the end of the French Enlightenment, and became attached to a minor philosophical movement, that of the Idéologues, whose most important representative was Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836). He coined the word ideology to denote, essentially, a naturalistic and materialistic theory of ideas, viewed as the byproducts of sensations. By a curious circular movement in intellectual history, de Tracy’s understanding of ideology as a “science of ideas” resurfaced, in a certain sense, in the 20th century, when the “human sciences” (e.g., sociology, anthropology, etc.) made a renewed claim that they could conduct a “scientific” study of ideas as expressions of material circumstances. Back in the 19th century, however, the word ideology did not really take off in its original meaning. Instead, the term was adopted by Karl Marx, who gave it a rather different sense and launched it on a new and successful career, so to speak.
Most famously in his (and Engels’) book German Ideology, Marx used the word to indicate a “super-structural” system of ideas, detached from “the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life.”2 In this negative sense, ideology hides the “actual life process” under a cloud or (typically, religious) ideas, and by so doing protects the social status quo. Accordingly, the communist revolution coincides with dissipating this false ideology and embracing “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”3 As Augusto Del Noce explains (in his essay “At the Origins of the Concept of Ideology” in The Age of Secularization), “for Marx ideology means abstract philosophy, philosophy of pure ideas, speculative philosophy that takes part in historical reality as a justification for a given historical order. Therefore, it is distinct from true philosophy which is, indeed, practical philosophy, but realizes human universality.”4
However, it is important to note that in Marxism “true philosophy” takes a new and very different meaning, which actually makes it indistinguishable from ideology if ideology is understood in the more general sense of thought directed at political action. As Del Noce also says in The Problem of Atheism, “the distinction between the two makes sense if one defines philosophy as the consideration of the eternal categories of being, and ideology as a means to act in the present. But Marx’s philosophy cannot but replace the categories of the eternal and the contingent with those of the past and the future’’5 and this results in a “complete reduction of philosophy to ideology—i.e., with the disappearance of the idea of truth vis à vis the spirit of power.”6 From the perspective of rigorous atheistic materialism, “ideas—including that of human emancipation—are reduced to instruments to be used as purely material devices” to operate “change.”7 The result is that philosophy and revolutionary ideology become identified because philosophy is always the instrument of a party. The following passage by Del Noce is worth quoting in full because it describes a mindset that is still very common today:
The reduction of the idea to instrument of production ... implies the disappearance of the distinction between philosophy as contemplation or self-awareness and ideology as a practical instrument to act on the world, and the consequent absorption into ideology of all cultural productions. That is, the distinction between truth and falsehood is not carried out outside of ideology but within it: one can distinguish between reactionary ideologies, which justify and thus falsify the given reality, and progressive and liberating ideologies. In sum, according to Marx there is philosophy that presents itself as such and actually is just ideology, because it only enters history as the consecration of a certain given order, falsified as sacred, or at least as natural and immutable; and there is, instead, ideology that openly declares itself as a political and partisan stance, because it wants to change the world and not simply contemplate it, which is truly philosophy, because it expresses the direction of history in its unfolding. In connection with this we understand the oscillations in his language between the pejorative and the positive meaning of the word; we understand the distinction between “true consciousness” and “false consciousness.”8
These remote Marxist origins of the concept of ideology already illustrate its deep philosophical, or indeed theological, roots. After all, the eclipse of the idea of truth, and the simultaneous embrace of the idea of power, are just aspects of the eclipse of the idea of God. Marx denies the existence of eternal and transcendent truths and values, and affirms the instrumental character of ideas. If there is no Truth greater than us, ideas are just tools that we develop and use. Since he operates in a post-Christian context, however, his atheism still maintains the notion that man transcends nature and has the power to fully humanize it, transforming the world though his action (a notion that was foreign to antiquity). The combination of these two factors results in a form of discourse that is entirely “practical” in the sense that “it enters the historical process as an instrument for action,”9 and above all for political action. In short, I would like to suggest that ideology is the natural modus cogitandi of what Del Noce calls “post-Christian” (or “positive”) atheism.10 Next, I will briefly review some of the specific features of this type of thought.
Ideology in Action
We have seen so far that ideology arose historically as the replacement of philosophy (as contemplation of eternal truths) by a form of knowledge focused on political transformation, which had its first paradigm in Marxist revolutionary thought. Now, I am going to comment on three essential characteristics of ideological thought. These characteristics are easily recognizable in all its historical expressions, which have marked the history of the 20th century, starting with the Soviet revolution of 1917, followed by Italian Fascism and Nazism, and then by the ideologies of the modern West. I will refer, besides Del Noce, to two authors who in their own lifetimes faced mass ideological movements, and not surprisingly came (independently of each other) to very similar conclusions: Hanna Arendt and Luigi Giussani.
1) The first key characteristic is what could be called the abstractness of ideological thought. In its drive to change the world, ideology utterly disregards the feedback coming from experience and operates by pure logical development. This point is beautifully illustrated by a passage from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism:
An ideology is quite literally what its name indicates: it is the logic of an idea ... As soon as logic as a movement of thought—and not as a necessary control of thinking—is applied to an idea, the idea is transformed into a premise [and] a whole line of thought can be initiated, and forced upon the mind, by drawing conclusions in the manner of mere argumentation. This argumentative process could be interrupted neither by a new idea (which would have been another premise with a different set of consequences) nor by a new experience. Ideologies always assume that one idea is sufficient to explain everything in the development from the premise, and that no experience can teach anything because everything is comprehended in this consistent process of logical deduction. The danger in exchanging the necessary insecurity of philosophical thought for the explanation of an ideology and its Weltanschaaung is not even so much the risk of falling for some usually vulgar, always uncritical assumption, as of exchanging the freedom inherent in man’s capacity to think for the straight jacket of logic with which man can force himself almost as violently as he is forced by some outside power.11
When the purpose of thought becomes the domination-humanization of reality (power and not truth), its greatest source of power is logical consistency and self-sufficiency, not verification by experience. To be more precise, ideology recognizes an empirical verification of sorts, but it is not correspondence to existing reality but rather the ability to change it. Therefore, raw logic becomes the only possible internal operating criterion. Arendt’s comment about the loss of freedom is also very important. While the association between ideological thought and totalitarianism is well known, often people do not grasp that the loss of political freedom is in some sense a “secondary” effect that reflects the prior loss of freedom of the ideologue himself, who is a prisoner of the inexorable logic of his ideology.
2) The second characteristic is the necessary partiality of ideological thought. Logic needs to start from some premise, and the choice of premise necessarily leaves out some other aspect of reality. Once one postulates that history is driven by class struggles, or that the cause of all of women’s problems is the patriarchy, or that undisturbed market dynamics always leads to the most desirable outcomes, or that white supremacy is the defining factor of American history etc., all other aspects must be ignored. This point is expressed very clearly in Chapter 11 of Giussani’s The Religious Sense:
Ideology is a theoretical-practical construction developed from a preconception. More precisely it is a theoretical-practical construction based upon an aspect of reality—even a true aspect —which is taken unilaterally in some way and ultimately made into an absolute for the sake of a philosophy or a political project. And, since ideology is built upon some starting point of our experience, experience itself is used as a pretext for an operation determined by extraneous and exorbitant concerns. For example, in front of the “poor” one can theorize about the problem of poverty. But the concrete person with his or her wants is marginalized once he or she has been used by the intellectual as a pretext for his or her opinions, or by the politician to justify and publicize his own actions. The views of intellectuals, which the powers that be find convenient and take up as their own, become common mentality by means of the mass-media, schools and propaganda. Rosa Luxemburg, with visionary lucidity, stigmatized such a process as “the creeping advance of the theoretician” which gnaws at the root of and corrupts every authentic impetus to bring about change.12
An ideological thinker attempts to organize all of reality on the basis of some partial truth, which he logically develops into a universal instrument of interpretation and (ultimately) of domination. By doing so, he typically ends up disregarding the effective welfare of concrete human beings. Furthermore, an ideologue’s steadfast allegiance to such “preconception” makes any form of dialogue impossible and, in a democratic system, must result in a complete ossification of
political discourse that ironically prevents real change.
3) Finally, ideological thought is necessarily agonistic. It achieves its practical efficacy by identifying an “enemy” as part of its preconceived narrative. As Del Noce also says, “Ideology is such in as much as it thinks ‘against’—that is, it serves the purpose of setting one part of reality in opposition to another.”13 It is very typical of ideologues to think that there are only two ways of thinking, theirs and that of their opponents. They pursue power by classifying people according to partial categories (classes, races, identities) and setting them in an all-explaining opposition, in which one side represents evil and oppression, and the other innocence and justice. This attribution of moral fault by mere participation in a group is the reason why ideologically thinking is always potentially violent, and can act as a powerful multiplier of violence, as was famously observed by Solzhenitsyn.14
Responding to Ideology
Finally, a few thoughts about responding to ideology, in light of the previous remarks.
First of all, it cannot be overemphasized that ideological thought needs to be recognized as such. Today this is far from obvious, because one of the dominant ideological strands in the West after World War II has been what Del Noce calls “sociologism” (or “scientism”), which essentially denies that there is any meaningful distinction between philosophy and ideology. As he explains, “for contemporary sociologism ideology means a group’s historical-social expression, as a spiritual superstructure of forces that are not spiritual at all, like class interests, unconscious collective motives, and concrete conditions of social existence. Accordingly, the progress of the human sciences will lead to social science, which, as the full extension of scientific reason to the human world, will finally achieve the complete replacement of philosophical discourse by scientific discourse.”15 In practice, this view has often led to a great fallacy: the notion that pragmatism and a technological orientation discourage ideological thinking. In fact, since ideology is a fundamentally practical orientation (ideas as tools to change the world, not to understand it), instrumentalism in education turns into potential ideologues the more generous souls, those who want to use ideas to “make a difference” in society rather than just “succeed” individualistically. The sociologistic understanding of ideology was also the reason why many people incorrectly predicted its demise. They thought that ideologies were associated with certain social conditions typical of the early 20th century, and would disappear as society moved on. As I tried to argue here, ideology is a philosophical-religious phenomenon that characterizes Western (post-Christian) secular modernity, and will keep reappearing in new forms as long as secular modernity itself endures.
Secondly, one cannot respond to an ideology in cognitive-theoretical terms, as one would respond to a philosophical doctrine, i.e., by pointing out internal contradictions or disagreements with observation. Once again, an ideologue is motivated by the desire to effect change and will dismiss as “abstract” all arguments about the truth or internal consistency of his doctrines. However, an “honest” ideologue will start doubting his ideology if he is shown that in actuality it is not producing the effects it was supposed to produce. Del Noce famously formulated the concept of the “heterogenesis of ends” of an ideology, meaning that “its exhaustion has a particular structure: it does not merely cease, but it backfires, it becomes an instrument of the opposite side.”16 In the case of Marxism, that meant that by denying “vertical” transcendence and permanent ethical values, it facilitated the rise of a more extreme form of bourgeois culture, freed from the fetters of Christian or Kantian morality. But the same phenomenon can be observed again and again in recent Western history. The anti-repressive ideology of the sexual revolution ultimately led to unprecedented levels of sexual exploitation. Libertarian individualism has led to the greatest expansion ever of the power of the state, by weakening all intermediate forms of social belonging. As we speak, it appears that in some places ideological anti-racism is bringing back forms of racial segregation and conflict that seemed to belong to the past. This type of contradiction can reveal to an ideologue the partiality of his or her ideology and suggest that in fact comprehending the world has to take priority over changing it, and that “reality has rights” that cannot be infringed upon without paying a steep price.
But what if the ideologue is not “honest,” in the sense of being so possessed by ideology and by thirst for power that he or she is out of reach for any type of persuasion? In this case ideology can only be resisted. Resistance can take many forms, of course, but at the most basic level it simply has to do with refusing to compromise one’s intellectual integrity under the pressure of power. Since ideology operates, as Del Noce says, “by leaving out some part of reality,” it is automatically defeated when somebody has the courage to point out that the “left-out part” is still there. Thus, the great weapon that disarms even the worst ideologue is not a clever argument or a forceful confrontation, but the simple decision of adhering to our personal experience, to common sense. Ideology is first of all a corruption of reason and requires its purification as the ultimate response.
1 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (Glencoe IL, Free Press, 1960).
2 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, ed. C.J. Arthur (New York, International Publishers, 1970), 47.
3 Ibid., 57
4 Augusto Del Noce, The Age of Secularization (Montreal: McGill’s-Queen University Press, 2017), 190.
5 Augusto Del Noce, The Problem of Atheism, (Montreal: McGill’s-Queen University Press, 2021), 227.
6 Ibid., 138.
8 Ibid., 264.
9 Ibid., 177.
10 This does deny the fact, of course, that religious narratives also can be used as ideological tools, just like anything else. A classic example is the ideology of the Action Française, but think also of some recent forms of political Islam.
11 Hanna Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1994), 469-470.
13 Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense (McGill’s-Queen University Press, 1997), 95-6.
13 Del Noce, The Problem of Atheism, 177.
14 In several passages of The Gulag Archipelago.
15 Del Noce, The Age of Secularization, 191.
16 Ibid., 179.