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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Conservatism and Ideology

"This small book is a defense of prudential politics, as opposed to ideological politics. The author hopes to persuade the rising generation to set their faces against political fanaticism and Utopian schemes, by which the world has been much afflicted since 1914. “Politics is the art of the possible,” the conservative says: he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom.

The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the tendency of American public opinion has been more or less conservative. But there exists some danger that conservatives themselves might slip into a narrow ideology or quasi—ideology—even though, as H. Stuart Hughes wrote some forty years ago, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”...

The concept of ideology was altered considerably in the middle of the nineteenth century, by Karl Marx and his school. Ideas, Marx argued, are nothing better than expressions of class interests, as related to economic production. 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—so the Marxists declared. Ruling ideas and norms constitute a delusory 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.” So Marx wrote to Engels.

Yet the exploited too, Marx says, develop systems of ideas to advance their revolutionary designs. 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, like all art, are worthwhile only as a means to achieve equality of condition and economic satisfaction. While deriding the ideologies of all other persuasions, the Marxist builds with patient cunning his own ideology.

Although it has been the most powerful of ideologies, Marxism —very recently diminished in strength—has competitors: various forms of nationalism, negritude, feminism, fascism (a quasi- ideology never fully fleshed out in Italy), naziism (an ideology in embryo, Hannah Arendt wrote), syndicalism, anarchism, social democracy, and Lord knows what all. Doubtless yet more forms of ideology will be concocted during the twenty-first century...

To summarize the analysis of ideology undertaken by such scholars as Minogue, Aron, J. L. Talmon, Thomas Molnar, Lewis Feuer, and Hans Barth, this word ideology, since the Second World War, usually has signified a dogmatic political theory which is an endeavor 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 Talmon calls “political messianism”. The ideologue promises salvation in this world, hotly declaring that there exists no other realm of being. Eric Voegelin, Gerhart Niemeyer, and other writers have emphasized that ideologues “immanentize the symbols of transcendence”—that is, corrupt the vision of salvation through grace in death into false promises of complete happiness in this mundane realm.

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.

The evidence of ideological ruin lies all about us. How then can it be that the allurements of ideology retain great power in much of the world?

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.”

ldeology may attract the bored man of the Knowledge Class who has cut himself off from religion and community, and who desires to exercise power. Ideology may enchant young people, wretchedly schooled, who in their loneliness stand ready to cast their latent enthusiasm into any exciting and violent cause. And ideologues’ promises may win a following among social groups that feel pushed to the wall—even though such recruits may not understand much of anything about the ideologues’ doctrines. The early composition of the Nazi party is sufficient illustration of an ideology's power to attract disparate elements of this sort...

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. For ideology is the politics of passionate unreason...

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, Salvator, 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, in striking contrast, have the habit of dining with the opposition.

In the preceding sentence, I employed deliberately the word conservative as synonymous, virtually, with the expression “prudential politician”. For it is the conservative leader who, setting his face against all ideologies, is guided by what Patrick Henry called “the lamp of experience”. In this twentieth century, it has been the body of opinion generally called “conservative” that has defended the Permanent Things from ideologues’ assaults.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the American public has looked with increasing favor upon the term Conservative. Public—opinion polls suggest that in politics, the majority of Voters regard themselves as conservatives. Whether they well understand conservatives’ political principles may be another matter...

The triumph of ideology would be the triumph of what Edmund Burke called “the antagonist world”—the world of disorder; while what the conservative seeks to conserve is the world of order that we have inherited, if in a damaged condition, from our ancestors. The conservative mind and the ideological mind stand at opposite poles. And the contest between those two mentalities may be no less strenuous in the twenty—first century than it has been during the twentieth. Possibly this book of mine may be of help to those of the rising generation who have the courage to oppose ideological zealots."

--- The Politics of Prudence / Russell Kirk
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