Does the Right Need an Ideology?

Ideologies are unavoidable and, in a sense, indispensable. Irving Kristol (WSJ, July 17, 1980) stated that the Right needed an ideology if it hoped to win the battle against the Left. But a number of conservatives strongly protested the statement, having for generations depicted ideologies as incompatible with true conservatism, as being essentially leftist in character. Socialism, communism, liberalism, all are ideologies, intellectual constructions, whereas a genuine conservative contemplates nature, favors age-old traditions, time-honored institutions, the wisdom of his forbearers, and so on. Some conservatives speak of the terrible misfortunes ideologies have brought upon mankind, but the same could be said of religion. One ideology is not as good as another ideology, just as, pace some benighted souls, one religion is not as good as another. The People’s Temple supporters, the Thuggies of India, are not as good as the Quakers.

Yet missing from the conservative argument is the hard fact that man is an ideological animal. Hayek said quite correctly that no society could ever exist without an ideology. European conservative thinkers thoroughly agree with Kristol’s contention that ideology cannot be fought with non-ideology. Pick any man at random, put him on a couch, and question him methodically. Soon the dim outline of an ideology will emerge, although its profile might be low, its contours barely distinguishable, its content contradictory.

The word “ideology” was originally attached to the ‘philosophy” of Count Destutt de Tracy, whose main work was translated by Jefferson into English. The term was soon in general use. (Napoleon, who was pragmatic, erratic, and played politics by ear, once said to a group of men how had argued too logically with him: “Messieurs, you are ideologues!” They had irritated him thoroughly….

Ideology is a coherent, logical presentation of human existence; it is intellectual, yet it also speaks to the heart. But Anglo-Americans dislike ideology. What then is the alternative?

American conservatives have carefully avoided offering to mankind an ideology—or a utopia. There are three kinds of utopias: those that cannot be realized, those that are feasible but cost a disproportionate amount of labor, suffering, and sacrifice, and those that can reasonably be established by sober reflection and honest effort. Everything that does not yet exist, that has yet to be built, instituted, or organized is, in a certain sense, an outopus. Hayek deplored the fact that (genuine) liberalism never had its utopia. Every young person contemplating and planning his or her future life is a visionary, a “utopian.”

As a result of their self-imposed inhibition, American conservatives, while brilliant in their critique of modern ills—pseudo-liberalism, socialism, communism, Jacobin democracy, egalitarianism, permissiveness, egotism, pacifism, progressivism, and goodness knows what other aberrations—have not provided the United States or the rest of the world with an alternative, with a blueprint for the future, with a picture of the desirable shape of things to come that could engender a real enthusiasm among the young.  Most Americans, I fear, would disagree with Anatole France’s statement that only extremes are bearable. In this regard I would like to cite an aphorism by Nicolas Gomez Davila (who is proud to call himself a reactionary): conservatives are (classic) liberals who have been maltreated by democracy.

There will never be Paradise on Earth, Edenism is nonsense, but there might conceivably be a better future. Yet only if we strive for it, not if we wait patiently for the total collapse of the present order, for we too might be buried under its debris. Professor James Buchanan, a noble Prize laureate and a genuine liberal has written in an article called “A Quest for a Tempered Utopia” that “it is time to again dream attainable dreams and to recover the faith that dreams can become realities. It is time to start replacing dystopia with a tempered utopia.”  This cannot be achieved through ordinary political channels, because “if all politicians are the servants of special interests, we must remain skeptical of political initiatives, even ours that seem aimed in the right direction.”

Peter Drucker, another right-of-center thinker, said back in 1939 that “ultimately we will need a new political theory and probably a very new constitutional. We shall need new concepts and a new social theory. Whether we shall get these and what they will look like, we cannot know today. But we can know that we are disenchanted with government primarily because it does not perform.” And Eliseo Vivas warned American conservatives: “I take it for granted that if the conservative movement is going to make more than a trivial and fugitive impact on the life of the nation, it will have to develop a philosophy that is systematic, that is comprehensive, that takes full and honest account of current positive knowledge and that is, therefore, no mean repetition of dried-up old chestnuts that appealed to man a generation or two ago, but have lost their flavor and freshness.”

It bears marking here that the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church are not per se conservative. The Catholic Church is like a tree, the same trunk stands on the same spot, but the branches, twigs, and leaves change constantly–and with them the shape of the tree. The Reformers were clearly conservative, and the Eastern Church is absolutely static.

An international conservative movement cannot exist; but a rightist one can, if prompted by the universally positive meaning of the word “right.” Not a single party in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, or Austria calls itself conservative. Even some notable non-Catholics are not happy with the conservative label, men like the late Whittaker Chambers who said he did not think of himself as a conservative. “I am a man of the Right. I am a man of the Right because I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version.”  Looking over the record, it is evident that American conservatism—elegant, wise, clever in its critique, adroit and constructive in upholding eternal values—has not shown new ways, designed a new order; it has too often only produced what the French call de la litérature—although beautifully written.

This excerpt from Leftism Revisited (Regnery Gateway) is used by permission.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn


Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909–1999) was an Austrian Catholic nobleman and socio-political theorist. Describing himself as an "extreme conservative arch-liberal, Kuehnelt-Leddihn argued that majority rule in democracies is a threat to individual liberties, and declared himself a monarchist and an enemy of all forms of totalitarianism. Kuehnelt-Leddihn had an encyclopedic knowledge of the humanities. His early books The Menace of the Herd and Liberty or Equality were influential within the American conservative movement. His best-known writings appeared in National Review, where he was a columnist for 35 years.

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  • Vishal Mehra

    “but there might conceivably be a better future”

    There is going to be an Anti-Christ in future.

    • Tout

      Let it be known, Canada has a “Christian Heritage Party”. Growing slowly,as more  people  see the need. Yet it is the only one that will stop our downturn. We need to learn to pray again; rather than to kill unborn children. Have you any idea what you do by killing the ba-bies that God creates ? Who brings a prayerbook to church ? Don’t be satisfied with some singing. Make it a personal talking (praying) to God. If you can, go to a Tridentine (Latin) Mass, even if one must drive some distance. Are we aware how we go down a slippery slope ? Strenghten yourself, stand up again. Join those leaders. You will have to face God’s judgement. Then, those who cry against God can not even help themselves. I prayed for us all at a H.Hart and at a Our Lady statues. Always receive H.Host on tongue, kneel for the Consecration.  

  • pamelanak

    What a wonderful Monday morning surprise! Many thanks for including this from one of my political heroes. Let’s have much more, shall we?

  • Robert Boehm

    The West once had an “ideology,” it was the Catholic Faith. The civilization which held this was called Christendom. Belloc wrote that Europe is the Faith; if she lost the Faith, she herself would be lost. Europe and the rest of the world are presently lost– because the Faith has been lost everywhere. Our Lady of Fatima brought the ONLY solution to our present woes: May the Pope and Bishops soon comply with her requests.

  • Jorgecerra

    Need an Ideology?
    I don’t think so. But faith and the true sense of freedom; “the truth will made you free”.
    Love constructs and egotism destroys; I think there is no more than that. Is that an Ideology?
    Do we need to build an inteletual system to explain that principle to people that don’t want or can’t understand in their hearts such a simple universal rule?
    The utopia must be to better oneself, because it is the only way to change the world. I think is that utopia which leads to the Kindom of God.  

  • I don’t like to disagree with Kuehnelt-Leddihn, whose writing I generally admire, but no, no, no, we do not need an ideology.  We are essentially anti-ideological.  We have ideas; they may be practical ideas about how to attain the common good, given the particulars of our circumstances; they may be faith-inspired ideas about the nature of man, his source and his end; they may be ideas or rather the distilled wisdom of long observation of human beings and their ways.  Not all the ideas in the world constitute an ideology, just as not all the thoughts in the world constitute a philosophical system.  What the ideologue does is to compel the richness of human experience into the tight little grid of some politico-philosophical system; it is the parodic inverse of the wisdom gained by faith, which sheds light upon human good and evil.  I set my face like flint against all such reductions, as Kuehnelt-Leddihn himself did; I believe he was one of those conservatives in the sixties whose cry was, “Do not immanentize the eschaton.”

    • Cord_Hamrick


      Watch out, there. You’d better strictly define the term “ideology” before saying we don’t need one.

      There are two equal and opposite errors into which one might fall, here: On the one hand there is the error of, as you say, compelling “the richness of human experience into the tight little grid of some politico-philosophical system.” On the other hand, one can disregard altogether the notion of coherence of thought and of worldview, and become accustomed to having three or four separate and mutually incompatible philosophies arranged piecemeal in one’s head simultaneously, with one’s actions governed not by an opinion about what is true (this being impossible because of one’s own cognitive dissonance on the topic) but by whichever notion happens, at a given time, to require the least self-discipline to obey.

      This error, I believe, is far more common in our modern world than the first; and it would also popularly be called “not having an ideology.”

      I am not saying that that is what you meant by “not having an ideology.” I know it isn’t. I’m just as much opposed to busybodies and utopians and totalitarians trying to immanentize the eschaton as you are. But I think it might be what Kuehnelt-Leddihn had in mind, and it is certainly what some folk have in mind, under the banner of being “ideology free.”

  • The moral law is one thing; but its application, given a particular culture, a particular place and time, and particular people, is another.  And that’s the moral law; everything else except for matters of Catholic dogma are less prescriptive still.  I have my “ideas” about teaching — and my ways; but I would no more prescribe them for everyone than I would invade their homes and steal their televisions.  I’m not being a relativist here, far from it; but the anti-ideologue recognizes the provisionality and incompleteness of human prudence, and is loath to make farmers in the English uplands behave like Portuguese fishermen, or ranchers in Chihuahua behave like stock brokers on Wall Street.  Because I am an anti-ideologue, I can imagine a reasonably just society led by a constitutional monarch, and a reasonably just society led by a senate; I can imagine a reasonably just society in which the vote is restricted, and a reasonably just society in which the franchise is universal.  What the ideologue does is to tailor perceptions of human reality, and moral insights, and tenets of the faith, to fit the idol of the single controlling idea.  Sure, I have “ideas” about how we might live a better life.  For starters: do the dishes, stop complaining about your spouse (because you’re no peach, either, pal), raise your kids instead of shrugging them off …

  • theorist

    An ideology or “a system” is a necessity of all men inasmuch as all men need a meaning to life. One cannot be systematically anti-system, for then one would be against one’s own system. So the only alternative is to choose a good system or ideology.

    Is it just me or did I just prove a theorem of human life? For I derived a conclusion from the empty set (I assumed from nothing that we don’t have a system and proved that on that assumption a contradiction ensues, thereby showing that a system is needed).

    So it seems that in every imaginable universe, mankind needs an ideology.

  • Sorry, theorist.  Meaning derives from the being of things, and not from an abstract system imposed upon them from without.  I am not “systematically” against systems; the adverb in that case makes no sense, as if I had embarked upon a systematic destruction of systems, when instead I am noting — again — the provisionality of human prudential judgments.  Edmund Burke (quoting from memory): There is nothing in nature so purely evil as the heart of a metaphysician.  By that word “metaphysician” he meant such ideologues as the French philosophes — not students of ontology.  Every idea raised to the level of determinant of all things is an idol.  We do not preach an ideology.  We preach a person: Christ, and Him crucified.  There is all the difference in the world.

    • Vishal Mehra

       But Belloc called the Political Theory of the Revolution true and eternal. (The French Revolution).

      And Chesterton wrote approvingly of the metaphysical doctrine of Equality.

      Without these two, how can we make sense of Man as a political animal?

  • Tony

    I’m not as friendly to the French Revolution, by a long shot, as Belloc was.  The metaphysical doctrine of Equality is, as I see it, more happily expressed in Christian terms as the equal dignity of all human beings before God.  That too is not an idea to be imposed upon persons, but a truth that radiates from persons and that we submit to.  The thing that the revolutionists did was to turn that truth into an all-controlling idea: an idol.  Then we get the appalling inequalities and absurdities necessary to enforce equalities where they do not genuinely exist, as between diligent people and careless people, or between virtuous people and vicious people, not to mention the natural hierarchies that call for recognition if we’re to do something even as simple as dig a straight trench.  Chesterton himself observed and honored those hierarchies.  It bears repeating: we do not worship an idea; we worship a person; we do not want to know ideas about God; we want to know God.

  • Thank you for quoting my grandfather Whittaker Chambers as a “man of the Right.”

    However, the full quote is this:  “I say: I am a man of the Right. I am a man of the Right because I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version. But I claim that capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative.”  (Cold Friday, p. 327)

    Now, you tell me your interpretation of that, and I’ll tell you mine.