Editors’ Note: We will be taking a publishing hiatus for the week of July 4th. For now, we hope you enjoy this featured Q&A: an edited transcript from an event titled “What Is Ideology?” co-hosted by Public Discourse and the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago on May 2, 2024. We will resume our normal publishing schedule on the evening of Sunday, July 7th. 

Introduction by Austin Walker, Associate Director of the Lumen Christi Institute

Ideology is a funny word. It is used to describe everything from political and philosophical principles to management techniques and lifestyle preferences. It is often used pejoratively; but then we regularly discuss our own ideological commitments. Ought one search for the “right” ideology, or escape it altogether? Is ideology part of a healthy intellectual life, or is it a deformation of it?  

To bring some clarity to these questions and address a preeminent contemporary concern in a sophisticated manner that avoids the acrimony of the culture wars, the Lumen Christi Institute and Public Discourse have come together to host a conversation between James Matthew Wilson and Mark Shiffman on Mark’s new book, What is Ideology? 

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James Matthew Wilson: For many years, I was at work writing a ridiculously long book called Catholic Modernism and the Irish Avant-Garde, which was published in January. It was a fairly obscure academic study, but one that tried to draw the whole Catholic tradition into conversation with the modern arts. So then, in a book about Irish poetry, I find myself studying the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, which is not what you normally intuit, but it makes sense if you read the 500-page book. And I say to Mark, “Mark, I’m studying Thomas Jefferson for this section of my book on Irish modernism, and he’s talking about ideology. What does that mean?” And Mark says, “I just happened to have a lecture that I recently delivered on the subject.” He gave me the lecture, and I soon discovered that this was one of the most helpful things I’ve ever read. 

That began a campaign to get this piece published. I’m very pleased that my colleague at the University of St. Thomas, Joshua Hren, who runs Wiseblood Books, was so generous as to publish a beautiful edition of What is Ideology? But I’m also thrilled that with the publication of that book, we have the occasion to talk about what that book says, which I think is so crucial for us at this particular moment.

And so, though it’s my duty to ask Mark provocative questions, I’m going to invite him to say a few words of introduction.

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.

First, ideology, of course, is violent against defenders of the order that it seeks to replace. And it has invented the abusive word “reactionaries” to describe them. This was invented in the French Revolution. Ideology is also necessarily violent against those who merely question its certainties: those who believe in the ideology are convinced that all that’s required to arrive at the social order that rights all wrongs of history is for everyone to adhere to the ideology and behave according to its dictates. Anyone who raises doubts and encourages others to doubt is impeding the rectification of human social relations that will finally reconcile all things. And finally, ideology is violent against reality itself, hating any truth in the order of things that stands in its way as much as it hates those who speak truths about the limitations of its plan. Nature is not allowed to be other than what the logic and aims of the ideology require it to be. Ideology is thus violently anti-traditional, anti-philosophical, and anti-natural. It is compelled to force everything to fit into the image of the person and society dictated by the ideology’s vision, and it is compelled to punish or eliminate what does not fit.

I’ll conclude by drawing some contrasts with a Catholic vision of reality. Since ideology seeks to substitute a structure of the mind for the order of creation that has been given to us, ideology is also inherently gnostic. Part of what defines Gnosticism as a heresy is that it denies the goodness of the created order. In this respect, ideology is inescapably at odds with the tradition of Christian humanism that responds to God’s creation with gratitude, humility, and respect. Ideology substitutes its agenda for practical judgment, which would recognize a complex order of goods and would draw upon extensive experience to understand how to navigate those goods and their competing claims. Ideology replaces conscience with its demands for enforcing its ideals and punishing all opposition. Ideology replaces the love of truth and recognition of mystery with enforced doctrinal purity and reductive concepts and slogans.

Ideology replaces eternal beatitude in the presence of God with utopian zeal for man’s redemption of history and thus replaces Christian eschatological hope with revolutionary optimism about human solutions. It replaces respect for the dignity of the human person with celebration of a new humanity required for its perfected social and political order. And if you take all those things together, it would seem to suggest that when Pope Francis uses the term “gender ideology,” for which he receives much criticism, he actually knows what he’s saying.

JMW: I want to start with this. The postmodern writer Michel Foucault is infamous for his practice of making ideological genealogies, which practice comes out of Nietzsche originally. It’s the idea that every idea that claims to be true is not to be thought of in terms of truth or falsity but in terms of its origins and its uses, and these in relation to power. You can show that a claim is not true simply by historicizing it, by retracing the story of it. And one thing you do in the book that’s so interesting is you give us a genealogy of ideology itself and show that the idea of doing these genealogies is itself ideological. You give us a genealogy of ideology intended to counter ideology. Take everybody through this quickly from Tracy forward. What are the three iterations of ideology?

MS: What the three meanings of the word have in common at a very high level of abstraction that they’re all talking about a system of ideas and a way of understanding how we think. A proposed way of understanding how we think that has political consequences for reshaping the world.

Now, the first version is this, as I say, a kind of cognitive psychology that’s extensively developed already in Hobbes and Locke and the sort of foundational figures of individualist political philosophy. And lo and behold, its conclusions are individualist political philosophy. Jefferson thinks that’s fantastic. And in the letter that you’re referring to in your original opening remarks there, Jefferson is asked by a nephew of his to sketch out a curriculum of philosophy. And he says, well, ideology, political economy, jurisprudence, and ethics. In that schema, he’s following Tracy’s suggestion that, look, this new science should replace what, in the Catholic tradition, theology and metaphysics do as providing a foundation for every other science. Jefferson was entirely on board with that project. It’s a very Lockean project, and it has made a comeback in recent decades in philosophy departments, this combination of cognitive psychology and epistemology as the foundation of understanding what it means to think and to know.

The Marxist version is mostly used critically, that is, there are lots of different ideologies that all are justifications for different oppressive social and economic orders. They present themselves as if they’re truths about the order of things, but they’re just a representation of reality that fits, that makes it seem as if reality justifies this political and economic order. And as I’ve just characterized what Tracy’s version is, that’s an accurate description of what he was doing, right? The sort of implicit meaning of ideology, if you generalized it. So, and this is very clear in Gramsci, communism itself is an ideology in that sense. But the argument is that it’s the only ideology that fits with a just order. 

But then, of course, you have the problem of, well, where do we get our understanding of what justice is? From the ideology, right? So it’s fundamentally circular in that way.

Arendt, in the spirit of Adams, is looking at all these ways of describing what political thinking is and saying, no, that’s not political thinking; that’s basically technocratic thinking. That’s looking at human phenomena as if they’re an engineering problem to solve. And if you can bring sufficient force and organization to solving them by transforming human life entirely to fit this outcome, that’s what they’re aiming to do. And that’s fundamentally doomed to fail because it’s an attempt to impose an order on reality that is not the order of reality itself. That is not fundamentally what’s given to us for us to know, to love, to work within.

JMW: I was born well after the age when you could go to a college campus and see some guy in a sport coat and a bow tie wearing a button on his lapel that said, “Please do not immanentize the eschaton.” That comes originally from one whose name is conspicuously absent from your book, Eric Voegelin. Russell Kirk, who was a great admirer of Voegelin’s, referred to his idea of conservatism in The Conservative Mind as the negation of ideology. You talk a little bit about Burke in these pages, but you don’t mention Voegelin. I can hear him in the background. What does it mean to talk about negating ideology? What’s the outside to the inside that Arendt described?

MS: The outside involves at least two dimensions, and ultimately the three that I’ve talked about ideology doing violence against. The Burkean observation, in opposition to the rationalism of the French Revolution, is that all of our thinking, and most of what’s sound in it, come to us from traditions that we’ve received; it’s not our business to go back to the fundamental rational principles and justify everything in that tradition. We see from experience and from living what’s good in what we’ve received, and we may see some shortcomings that need to be addressed. That’s an entirely different way of thinking about human order.

Implicit in that way of thinking is the second dimension, which is understanding practical reasoning properly. The practical reasoning is not, “okay, here are my premises, and here are their conclusions, and therefore I’ll make everything fit.” Practical reasoning acknowledges that we are choosing beings with limited knowledge and live in a world of so many possible goods that we can’t simply prioritize one set of goods and make everything turn out great on that basis. That political thinking, the practical thinking, deals with real situations in which there are multiple goods in play and people attached to different goods in the political order. You want to do justice to this variety, both within the order of the moral life and the gift of being and goodness, but also within complex interrelations between human beings who are very different and who are not made to fit into one mold.

That leads to the third alternative, which is understanding that the reality and depth of created being, because it’s ultimately grounded in the Creator who infinitely surpasses it and is infinitely deeper than it, is always fundamentally mysterious. 

JMW: I mentioned Burke before. I want to give you a chance to say a few words about what Burke saw in the French Revolution. This is an amazing moment, Burke’s perceptions and predictions about the nature and effect of that definitive Revolution. Burke saw how awful the French Revolution was going to be. So tell us a bit about Burke and his critique of ideology.

MS: There’s potentially some disagreement about Burke on this point, which is to say there are two versions of Burke. You might call these the soft conservative version of Burke. Like gradualism, but not necessarily with any kind of fundamental grounding in principles of order that are natural. I don’t think that’s a good representation of Burke. I think implicitly, Burke had a sort of Irish Catholic temper of mind. I think he is one of the great political apologists for Catholic natural law and can frame it in a way that’s not like throwing Thomas Aquinas at you. It’s giving you this understanding that through the practices and traditions that we, over time, discover are fruitful for human life, we find our way to these basic natural law principles and how they can be manifested in institutions and human relations. And it’s not a process of, “Okay, I’ve figured out the first principles, and everything has to now conform to that.” In a certain sense, it’s a dialogue across the generations, and an inherited dialogue, very much like the development of doctrine in Catholicism. So, I think there’s an underlying premise that Burke, since he’s mostly talking to Protestants, and some questionably religious liberals, is finding a way to make this older traditional Catholic understanding of moral reality make sense to his contemporaries.

JMW: So ideological thinking is the practice wherein we start certain logical premises that are grounded in nothing but our own logic, our own reason. We say these should be the case, and then ideology becomes the political program that imposes these abstracted logical ideas on reality. It does two things simultaneously. On the one hand, it’s ahistorical and anti-historical, so for the soft Burke, it doesn’t defer to the past and to precedent. But it’s also anti-transcendent. As you say, non-ideological thinking assumes that we’re born into the world, so not only are we born into history, but we’re born into a world that is not our creation, nor the creation of our ancestors. It has a natural order to which we need to defer, and which we need to discern if we’re to live well and to think truthfully. That’s another Burke or another dimension of him.

MS: And we respond artfully to it.

JMW: That reminds me of two things. People don’t often associate Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis together. But you hit on something earlier with the critique of gender ideology, the idea of an abstract principle of gender as a social construct: that’s our idea, we can impose that on reality, and we’ll reconform the world to accept the principle that was never a part of it before, but should have been. That’s Francis’s critique of calling it gender ideology.

Alasdair MacIntyre published an essay in the early 1990s called “Can We Learn What Veritatis Splendor Has to Teach?” It’s a wonderful essay that says what John Paul II is telling us is that we are “culture transcending animals.” We’re animals, we’re embodied, we’re part of history, we’re part of culture, we have natures and limits, and we live in the world: but we finally transcend them.

Mark used to teach a class at Villanova called “World,” which I inherited from him and made a few modifications to. One of the modifications I made was to add Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si on the climate crisis into this course. One of the reasons I added that encyclical was because Pope Francis echoes in a profound way what John Paul II says about us being culture-transcending. That encyclical, if you’ve read it, is an expression of continuous despair and dismay over every aspect of the contemporary world. I mean, air-conditioning gets a whole paragraph, and not in a good way. But that encyclical has this brilliant thread through it, wherein Francis returns, time and again, to recognizing that it’s the human capacity to perceive truth, to know the good, and to contemplate beauty that saves us when all of history seems so jaded by a material necessity that’s going to lead to apocalypse. There is still this spiritual freedom that stands above material necessity, and what kind of freedom is it? It’s the freedom, it’s the capacity, to think outside of ideology.

I have another question for you. The hero in your book, one of two heroes actually, comes from somewhat unexpected quarters, and that’s Ralph Ellison. Tell us about Ralph Ellison, the author of The Invisible Man.

Ideological thinking is the practice wherein we start certain logical premises that are grounded in nothing but our own logic, our own reason.


MS: Ralph Ellison wrote one of the greatest novels in America. It’s an incredibly rich novel, and one of the primary threads of that novel is precisely the narrator. He’s a young black man living in the South, and he goes to this black college, and he really believes in the whole kind of sales job that the college is giving. But he discovers that by believing that, he actually gets into trouble and has to go through this journey of self-discovery. A lot of that journey consists of trying to latch on to a kind of vision that organizes the world for you. Eventually, he finds himself drawn to this Marxist group. He becomes a spokesman and organizer for them. But gradually, he realizes how this view that seems to be promising this future of racial equality is fundamentally anti-cultural, and he comes to appreciate what he himself never previously appreciated when he was trying to be something else: the rich cultural heritage of Christianity and music and story that he as a black American inherits. It’s a lifegiving, rich way of engaging reality that’s not trying to narrow it down to some optimistic vision, but is confronting the whole depth of grief and sorrow and tragedy and comedy and everything about human life. 

Ellison’s portrayal of the process his protagonist goes through, of being sucked into this ideological project and believing that he’s participating in the redemption of history, and his gradually being jarred out of that, is a very, very powerful description and portrayal of the power of ideology to tap into and lay hold of our fantasies and desires for a perfect world. It destroys our humanity and enslaves us to something inhuman. And importantly, Ellison suggests strongly here and elsewhere that ideological politics will never make things better for black Americans or the race problem generally, but will only make things worse.

JMW: We live in an age that’s more ideological, it seems, than any time since the Russian Revolution. What do we need to do to think well in a way that genuinely encounters truth, goodness, and beauty, and does not subject itself to the ideological program you’ve been describing?

MS: Some people talk about us being in a kind of post-ideological age, and I think there’s something to that. The mental content of people engaged in these protest movements is not actually a vision of an order of anything. It insists on the radical transformation of reality right now. It inherits this belief from the ideological mind that this is how you confront political realities, but it’s lost any sense that you have to have a vision of order that justifies anything. So, in a certain sense, it’s the worst of both worlds. Because it’s all the bad kind of reflexes and attitudes, sort of destructive character of ideology that thinks, “Okay, if these people are doing it, it doesn’t count as violence, and if these people, the colonial oppressors, are doing it, it does.” It has all that doublethink, but it has none of the rational structural coherence that you could actually enter into some kind of dialogue with and say, “no, here’s how you see that this can’t be right.” 

James, let me pose a question to you in turn. Because I can imagine that someone might ask us the following: is conviction possible without ideology? No one can make the kind of sacrifices and efforts necessary to make the world a better place unless they have a passionate commitment to an image of the way the world should be and a willingness to do what it takes to make it that way. How doesn’t that commitment slip into ideology?

JMW: I know I seem very mild-mannered here, but I’ve always loved to punch people in the face. And I’m willing to punch people in the face, not because of ideas I have, but because of things that are real that I love. Ideology shouldn’t enter into our lives at all. And that’s one of the great things about what Mark is saying. Ideology is not a tool; it’s a falsehood that distorts and destroys our nature. 

I remember one of the first students I ever taught. She had an article, or she wrote an essay for my class that said, “this ideology is a bad ideology. We need a new ideology.” And I just thought, you’re using the word wrong, but Mark Shiffman isn’t going to write this book for twenty more years, so how am I going to tell you?

I love G. K. Chesterton, and the reason G. K. Chesterton was so wonderful is that he just asked you to look at real things that are worth loving and to defend those. And sometimes you will defend things that have deep faults. In fact, without exception, you will. But those things still deserve to be defended, because they are good things that are capable of being loved. And I think the best thing to do is to be honest about the faults where they are present, but then stand in defense of them.

MS: And I would add, the only way you can make the world a better place is by becoming a better human being. And that kind of work doesn’t really have very much to do with making other things into things that they’re not.

I think that begins to answer the question that is sometimes asked of me: how is it that you’re not an ideologue yourself?

JMW: Well, I’ve been called an ideologue before. I thought, “what? Me?” But that’s a fair question. I have written a poem called “Revolutions.” It is a ballad about wokeness, you might say. I know that’s not great material for poetry, but it worked out. In that ballad, the revolutionaries say that we just need to crush a few more bones and everything will be great. And the end of the poem is the response of someone who’s standing outside of this, I hope, myself, as a non-ideologue, not endorsing the revolutions, asking what am I “supposed to do?” And I wonder if that poem ends in a way that’s really disappointing for the reader, but for me is totally satisfactory, which is just to say: you have got to keep reading books and looking at things and try to be human in the world. And that’s my counterrevolution, I’m afraid: to try to be a good father, to go to church on Sunday, to tithe. And then I write poems. They’re not going to get broadcast on television, but I’m hoping that the same thing will happen for other people that happened for me when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old: somebody will open up a random book someday and say, “hey, that’s a pretty good poem. That makes me think about the world.” And that’s all you can do because reality is program-resistant. And so you have just got to try to make good things.

To sum up my long response, we’re simultaneously historical and culture-transcending animals. In other words, we have tradition and we have the Eucharist.

MS: All that I can add is that James is a philosophical poet and I’m a poetic philosopher. Also, a real living, loving, contemplative engagement with the Eucharist reveals to us in a palpable and a visible way some fundamental truths about the order of reality, about the meaning of our desires, the meaning of our sufferings, and fundamentally what violence is. And all those things are endless lessons for us.

Image by Feng Yu and licensed via Adobe Stock.