By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Analyze the limitations of ideological thinking.
- Discuss alternative ways of examining political life.
- Assess the enduring power and influence of political ideologies.
Among the diversity that defines the global ideological landscape are movements that repudiate the concept of political ideology itself. These movements see ideologies as deeply problematic even as they essentially express an ideology—that is, a cluster of ideas about how politics is and should be that informs their political action.
Marxism and the Priority of Science
In his 1845 work The German Ideology, Marx argues that the dominant economic forces in a society can shape human reason. Marx held that the ruling class would concoct views about the world to perpetuate their rule. In Marx’s thinking, careful empirical observation and rigorous study are needed to break the spell of these ideas. Marxists, including the members of the Chinese Communist Party, label as “ideology” any views that are not confirmed by hard-nosed social science. For this reason, Marxists and Maoists often call their vision scientific socialism and repudiate “ideological” thinking, which they view as the product of abstract thinking not grounded in scientific reality.
Burkeanism and the Priority of Prudence
Followers of the political thought of British writer Edmund Burke (1729–1797), such as English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990), reject a wide swath of political visions, including Marxism. They use Burke’s writings to argue that political ideologies based on reason risk dismissing all that does not meet with the approval of their rational vision’s assessment of reality. Oakeshott contended that because ideologies overestimate the powers of human reason, they dangerously repudiate traditions and customs that have stood the test of time and disregard the complexity of political life.
It is much safer, followers of Burke and Oakeshott argue, to test the consequences of innovations slowly and cautiously against the most fundamental insights that have developed among thinkers over the centuries.
Religious Extremism and the Priority of Revelation
Having questioned what reason and science can reveal about how politics should operate in the future, why should one rest content with reliance on the lessons of history? Are the lessons of history really unambiguous? If not, then they require interpretation. But if reason and science provide no guide, by what means can one interpret the historical record?
Questions such as these have led to the emergence of the approach to politics often called religious extremism, or the reliance on the will of God as revealed to finite and fallible minds in a book of revelation. For religious extremists, everything outside of revelation is empty human “ideology.” For them, revelation is a clear, singular guide to the most important questions of political life. Religious extremists reject political secularism, or the view that explicitly religious sets of principles should not administer government.
Religious extremism is not unique to any particular faith. Recently, for example, religious extremism has played a major role in political disputes in Myanmar, where Buddhist extremists believe that celestial beings gave the land of Myanmar to the followers of Buddha and that the Muslim Rohingya people are defiling foreigners.71 It has played a major role in the development of Orthodox Jewish settlements in the territories of Israel acquired during the Six-Day War of 1967. It has inspired some Christians to a vision of a godly kingdom in which false believers have no place and can be removed by force. And it inspires Muslim members of the Taliban who once again rule Afghanistan.
Its potency must not be underestimated.