The late, great historian Bernard Bailyn may have been, as his New York Times obituary says he said he was, “not very political,” but I think he must have inadvertently done much political mischief with the title of his most famous book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Though I fully accept that, as a historian, I am not fit to touch the hem of this great man’s garment, I humbly submit that the word “ideological” in the context of the American revolution is an anachronistic misnomer. This is particularly to be regretted as the late professor is also described in his Times obit as “a frequent critic of overspecialization, abstraction and politicized ‘presentism’ — that is, interpreting past events in terms of modern thinking and values.” As I see it, “ideological” as applied to anything in the 18th century is sheer presentism.
“Ideology” — in the sense of an elaborately worked out system of social as well as political organization designed by intellectuals to be imposed on more organic social and political arrangements — had not yet been invented at the time of the American Revolution. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest occurrence of the word in any sense was in 1796, the year of John Adams’s election as our second president, when it meant “that branch of philosophy or psychology which deals with the origin and nature of ideas.” It wasn’t until another century after that that it was first recorded as meaning a “systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics, or society and forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct” These were mostly areas of life which the first post-colonial generation in America would have put under the heading of morality or religion.
Does this matter? I think it does. For if we fail to distinguish between ideology as we understand it and the sort of political philosophy with which the American Founders and Revolutionary leaders were familiar, we advance the left’s disingenuous contention that the right has an “ideology” of its own (usually labeled by the left themselves as “capitalism,” in the first instance, and later “imperialism” or “white supremacy” or “patriarchy” or some other pejorative according to need) to match and oppose its own. Once that has been established, all that remains for the new ideologues’ propaganda to accomplish is to prove that their ideology (theoretically, of course) is superior to that of the opposition — not because there is or ever can be any proof of this but basically because it promises more.
For it promises utopia, and what has any of the alleged right-wing’s supposed ideologies got to compete with that? The left know that those on the right who take up the challenge of arguing only on theoretical grounds (“ideological” ones, as they would prefer to put it) and proclaim the comparative virtues of “capitalism” can never out-promise them, though far too many of my fellow-conservatives have tried. But so long as they can keep the debate on this purely theoretical level, as a clash of rival ideologies, each promising to be a better system for the production of human happiness and well-being, the revolutionary left will have the better of the argument. And it will help them immeasurably to keep it on that level if they can continue to pretend that the revolutionaries of two and a half centuries ago were thinking ideologically too.
They weren’t. In fact, the original American revolution could be said to have been anti-ideological, since at its heart was the belief that individuals should be free to engage in their own “pursuit of happiness” without having some state-sponsored version of happiness thrust upon them willy nilly. “Capitalism” was a word, like “ideology,” unknown to the Founders, who had no grand economic theory according to which they designed the American Republic but operated on the mostly mercantilist but unsystematic economic assumptions of their day.What the ideologues of the following century were to label “capitalism,” in order to contrast it unfavorably with socialism, was never anything more than their word for economic reality, or realism if you prefer.
That reality is something that continues to exist in all human societies, regardless of their ideological pretensions and in spite of all opposing ideologies’ attempts to stamp it out. They may call it the black market or the black economy then, but it still is and always will be nothing more or less than economic reality driven underground by law or custom on top of which some ideological superstructure may or may not have been constructed to justify such a suppression of normal human life. In practical reality, or life as ordinary, non-ideological people know it, no theory has ever been more thoroughly discredited than socialism, but that seems never to have interfered with the ideology’s many and continuing theoretical triumphs over the Washington Generals of ideologies, which they call “capitalism.”
“Ideology,” as Anthony Esolen has recently written, “makes you stupid.” And it is this stupidity which has spawned a whole new breed of ideological straw-men — such as systemic racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, Orientalism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia — for the virtue-signaling progressive one to pretend to wipe the floor with. Some at least of these new-minted fake ideologies had once had a real-world existence before they were converted into mythical ideologies (like “systemic racism”), but the great virtue from the left’s point of view of making real enemies over into mythical ones is that, however often the latter have been rhetorically defeated, they will always be there for you to pretend to vanquish them again when need be. All such ideological triumphs exist only on a fantastical level and should not be confused with the real achievements of the American Revolution, any more than that Revolution should be confused with the fantasy one now being enacted by ideologues on the streets of many of our major cities with the help of ideologically stupefied mayors and city councils.