Ideology: a history of confusion part 1: Origins
(Section 1 of Ideology and Practice)
Let’s start, for orientation purposes, with a bit of history. On the 5th day of the newly-christened month of Thermidor, Year II (23 July 1794), at the height of the Great Terror, Antoine-Louis Claude Destutt, Comte de Tracy, is imprisoned in Paris awaiting a hot date with the guillotine which is now only days away.
Destutt is the latest scion of a Scottish ancestor, Walter Stutt (or Stott) who moved to France to soldier for the king in 1420. Soldiering has been the family business ever since, acquiring lands and title along the way. Despite his aristocratic position of one of the noblesse d’épée and his late medieval antecedents, Tracy is very much a modern man, champion of the Enlightenment and early supporter of the Revolution.
A regimental colonel in 1789 he was elected to the états généraux by the local nobility. Joining the Third Estate after the so-called Tennis Court oath, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly and supported the vote to suppress the feudal order on the night of 4 August 1789 and the declaration of the rights of man on 26 August and spoke in support of the anti-slavery lobby. He joined the short-lived Societé de 1789, organised by Sieyes and Condorcet, along with Cabanis, Garat and Bailly, but aligned himself with LaFayette and La Rochefoucauld’s Club des Feuillants opposed to the Jacobins.
When the Constituent Assembly was replaced by the Legislative Assembly he left national politics to dedicate himself to the pursuit of science with his friend and fellow lumière, Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, but was recalled to military service in the Army of the North by Lafayette in February 1792. After the insurrection of 10 August and the fall of Lafayette, Tracy returned to civilian life only to be swept up in the Great Terror’s wave of arrests in November 1793.
Now, eight months later, the date for his final encounter with the guillotine has been set. Tracy has spent his months of imprisonment reading and studying avidly Locke, Condorcet, Condillac and other Enlightenment writers. Characteristically, in the last days of his life, rather than seeking oblivion or solace in alcohol or prayer, he is writing furiously. How to rescue the revolution from the rumours, lies, paranoia and “fake news” that is fuelling the murderous frenzy of the Great Terror? Why, by science, of course! A new science of ideas, how to establish objectively which ideas are true and which are false, rather than demagoguery or appeals to base emotions. Tracy needs a name for his proposed new science of ideas and so he christens his vision “idéologie”.
However, fate is kind to Tracy and mere days before his scheduled execution, on the 9th day of Thermidor (27 July 1794), Robespierre falls, jumping the queue for a tryst with Madame Guillotine, and the Great Terror ends. After another three months of appeals Tracy manages to extract himself from prison and return to his studies and the life of a well-healed freelance Enlightenment intellectual under the Thermidorian Convention.
Sixteen months after his release, thanks to Cabanis, Tracy was appointed as associate member of the Class of Moral and Political Sciences in the newly created Institut National. His first paper, delivered to the Institut on joining announces his project of founding a new science of rational ideas, “l’Idéologie” to guide the Institut’s work on reforming the state of education in the Sciences and the Arts from the previously Royalist grand academies, closed during the revolution and which the Institut is to replace. While there he founds a circle of liberal republican intellectuals called the Societé des Idéologues to further this project.
Meanwhile, during the first flush of Thermidorian reaction, a witch-hunt has lead to a generalised purge of Jacobins and all those suspected of association with the “térroristes” (as the partisans of the Great Terror were castigated). A young Jacobin officer by the name of Napoléon Bonaparte, together with many of his front-line cadre peers who played a decisive role in the military defence of revolutionary France in the last years, has been cashiered from the army and left on the sidelines. When royalist counter-revolution rears its head against the Thermidorian Convention on 13 Vendémière an IV (5 Oct 1795), it is the Idéologistes who lobby for the rehabilitation of Buonaparte and the other Jacobinist military, to defend the republic. Buonaparte plays a key role in putting down the royalist revolt and, thus rehabilitated, begins his march to power under the Directoire, towards becoming Consul and later Emperor. In recognition of their support at a crucial juncture, Buonaparte elevates several of the Idéologues, Tracy included, to the Senate.
But the brief honeymoon between Buonaparte and the Idéologues was not to last. As he consolidated his power and shucked off the status of power-sharing Consul for the unchallenged autocracy of Emperor, the Idéologistes, Tracy included began to criticise policies they thought fell short of, or even undermined liberal republican values. Although their power as a faction was by this stage entirely notional, for some reason Buonaparte fostered a disproportionate resentment of this particular collection of his critics. Not only did he denounce all his opponents under the label of “windbags and idéologues” (the latter term, as opposed to Tracy’s idéologistes, he claimed to have coined personally), he even went so far as to blame his defeat in Russia, in an 1812 speech to the council of state, on these same idéologues.
“It is to ideology, to that obscure metaphysics, which, searching with subtlety after first causes, wishes to found upon them the legislation of nations, instead of adapting the laws to the knowledge of the human heart and to the lessons of history, that we are to attribute all the calamities that our beloved France has experienced”
By this stage Tracy and the original Idéologistes were so marginal, that John Clegg argues, persuasively, that in Napoleon’s usage, the term has grown and mutated to encompass all political criticism from intellectuals, based on raising abstract theories over practice and experience.
In Napoleon’s derogatory usage - the term idéologue definitively replacing idéologists thereafter - the meaning of the word is associated with “metaphysics”, which is ironically the polar opposite of Tracy’s original positivist materialist programme. The emperor’s pejorative sense seems to have won the day in shaping popular discourse from the 1810s on.
That said, the term did not become very widely used for most of the 19th century, after the fall of Bonaparte (Tracy and the Idéologues having disappeared into obscurity well before that, as mentioned — albeit that the final volume of his “Éléments d’idéologie” was published after Napoléon’s fall in 1815). Instead another term — doctrinaire occupied that niche of derogatory meaning due to a further episode of post-1789 French history.
After the fall of Napoléon and the Bourbon restoration of Louis XVIII, the royalists split into two factions. The first, the ultra-royalists were for rolling back every change since 1789 and a return to pre-Enlightenment absolutism and aristocratic power. The second faction of more liberal royalists were in favour of a constitutional monarchy with a liberal(ish) constitution and parliamentary elections based on a heavily restrictive property franchise — a defence of bourgeois class power, rather than atavistic aristocratic revanchism, to simplify.
The leader of the more liberal or pro-bourgeois wing of the royalists was Pierre Paul Royer-Collard. A bonapartist and liberal exile journal in Brussels tagged him with pejorative nickname “the doctrinaire” or “le Pierre Royer-Collard de la doctrine chrétienne” based on his past studies with a Catholic order the Prêtres de la doctrine chrétienne commonly known as “the doctrinaires”. The sobriquet was not just poking at his pious past, but was a well-judged character assessment, given that Royer-Collard and his faction, were obsessed with preaching on doctrine and orthodoxy in their efforts to tread the political tightrope between the rabid reactionary “ultras” to their right, and the republicans and liberals to their left.
In this manner the word and duelling concepts of ideology (the positivist and the pejorative) faded into relative obscurity for much of the 19th century, really only reviving during the period of classical Marxism in the period following Marx’s death to WW1. And even then really only seeing a general revival in the wake of the cultural shock-wave of the 1917 October Revolution.
Before we wrap up this introductory historical section, one final neologism that appeared much later than ideologist and doctrinaire needs to be noted — the term “intellectual”. This latter neologism was devised by the anti-Dreyfusards as a term of abuse for the Dreyfusards, particularly writers like Émile Zola, the writer of “J’accuse!”. This term was intended as a pejorative from the outset and absorbed a lot of the meanings previously associated with either ideologue or doctrinaire. But it’s important to remember that for the lifetimes of Marx and Engels and everyone in the 19th century, the term “intellectual”, so familiar to us today (albeit in a more neutral sense than it’s original pejorative intent) did not yet exist. This is important so as not to fall into anachronism, for example in understanding Lassalle’s response to Marx over the latter accusing him of being an “ideologist”. But we will come to that later.
We will address the topic of Marxism and Ideology in a later section. As mentioned above, it is unlikely that Tracy’s neologism would still be in commonplace use had it not been revived in the early 20th century by that crucial relationship. And in fact the allegation that the classical Marxist theory of ideology played a significant role in the historical failure of the inter-war communist movement to effectively counter the rise of fascism, is central to our undertaking. To put it crudely, the two word answer to the question of this essay’s introductory question - “why bother?”, would have to be - “because fascism”.
But for the purposes of reviewing the successes and failures of previous models of ideology it is helpful to propose a new or different model that can then be used as a grid (to use Althusser’s term) to lay over previous formulations to make a reading of “concordances and discordances […] presences and absences” easier. So let’s move on to the proposal for a different model of ideology in that light.
- John Clegg, “ On the concept of “ideology” in Marx and Marxism”, 2011, unpublished. I am indebted to John for providing me with a copy of his unfinished article on this subject.
- Louis Althusser, et al, “Reading Capital”, “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy”, section 4.