The Problem with Ideology

“By its very nature, hard-line ideology is self-serving and self-perpetuating; its primary goal is to survive—and that precludes everything.”–Queen Rania of Jordan

People are literally the soil where ideas (and memes[1]) are planted; ideas are planted by teachers, peers, parents, churches, advertisers, and governments; and for this reason thinking can be, paradoxically, a rather thoughtless process; it’s enough to make a person wonder whether or not anyone is capable of conceiving an original idea or if we’re doomed to always occupy intellectual spaces constructed by others.

Russia in the 19h century illustrates this notion of people being soil for the planted idea. Imperial Russia was a repressive regime where every attempt at revolution failed. Violent revolution is easy while peaceful reform is difficult. Counter-intuitive as it is but armed struggles fail more often to succeed than do peaceful reform movements.[2] However, armed struggles have one advantage peaceful ones do not: violence is easy while peace is complex.

russian-rev_1917Peaceful movements are more complicated because they require thought (why do we need to change?), discipline (we must avoid giving in to the temptation to use physical violence), patience (we must keep our eye on the goal) and planning (what strategy is the best one to use at this specific time?). You also need a public ready to act. But before this happens the people must first be prepared to listen. Thus, the Petrashevtsky, a reform-minded group of Russian intellectuals avoided open conflict with the Tsar. Instead of promoting open revolt, this group pursued a decades’ long strategy of exposing the Russian peasantry to the appropriate propaganda[3] in order to “[win] hearts and minds, so that when, in the distant future, the revolution finally came, it could be sure of mass support”.[4] The work of the Petrashevtsky turned out to be futile: future attempts at reform like the peaceful peasant march protesting rising bread prices in 1905 on the Tsar’s winter palace in St. Petersburg failed—failed in part because the movement turned violent while the “hearts and minds” of the Russian people were still not ready to conceive of a world where peace was stronger than armed struggle. The thinking of the people had to change.

Propaganda plays an important role in shaping our understanding of the world: we are literally what we think about; and the content of our thoughts reflects the information we are exposed to; therefore, it makes intuitive sense that all of us, to varying degrees, is influenced by propaganda to think narrowly (or ideologically[5]). There are many different types of ideology, e.g. there’s fascism (a worldview reflecting the tendency to look inward for meaning and enemies), liberalism (a belief in the necessity of a limited government and freedom of the individual), communism (a faith in the role of class conflict leading humankind inexorably[6] towards the dictatorship of the proletariat[7]), and so on and so forth.

For all their explanatory power, ideologies pigeon-hole our thinking; ideologies limit the options available to us by boiling complex issues down into simpler components like a party-line or a favored line of reasoning; and ideologies, as was the case with the Russian peasantry in 1905, blind us so we do not recognize peace as the better alternative to violence.

trickleSpeaking of blindness, let’s look at an example of ideology at work in the field of economics: the support an economic theory like “trickle-down economics” continues to receive despite the fact it objectively doesn’t work speaks volumes about how easily people are manipulated through propaganda.[8] In the 1980s, political parties were pushed by wealthy backers to cut taxes. The parties needed the support of the American electorate to do this. Thus, the idea of trickle-down economics—the notion cutting taxes encouraged broad economic growth for everyone—was sold to Americans as a certainty. Despite the support trickle-down continues to receive, money never trickled from the wealthy to the poor; rather, it continued gravitating towards the already wealthy and the powerful.[9] Trickle-down economics simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, free-market fundamentalists,[10] ideologues in every sense of the word, keep selling the notion that it does and the American population keeps buying into the myth.

The blind faith some continue to have in trickle-down economic theory demonstrates the single greatest weakness of any ideology: ideologies only make sense if its fundamental assumptions are never questioned and are accepted at face value. To gain an appreciation for the absurdity of not questioning an ideology, let’s look at two situations drawn from the history of science:

Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union. He was notoriously distrustful of intellectuals. Stalin’s power was so complete he had the history of the Russian Revolution re-written[11] so he appeared to play a more substantial role than warranted. He was uncompromising in seeing his particular vision of communism realized: only those pieces of art, music, history, literature and scientific theories reflecting the Marxist-Leninist ideology[12] were considered acceptable. No other alternatives could be entertained by citizens of the Soviet Union.

Marxism-Leninism (or Stalinism) not only made for the writing of some questionable history, it also had deleterious[13] effects on the path Russian science followed under Stalin. Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was an eminent geneticist working in the field of agriculture. Vavilov didn’t believe genuine science had to be made to fit an ideology; rather, science was based on a method of discovery where the world revealed its secrets through a combination of testing and observation. As a geneticist working in the 1930s and 40s, Vavilov accepted the idea that the building blocks of life (DNA) were made of tiny units called chromosomes and alleles; however, despite the physical evidence in support of this view, Vavilov was hounded out of Soviet science for accepting the existence of chromosomes, etc. by a pseudo-scientist, and Communist party hack, named Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976).

According to Lysenko, when Vavilov asserted the building blocks of life were divisible into chromosomes and alleles, the geneticist was committing ideological heresy. True science, Lysenko asserted, must reflect the basic tenets and beliefs of Marxism-Leninism, e.g. “true socialist science” stressed the “unity” of the “whole organism”. Socialist scientists, therefore, could not in good conscience entertain any notion of tiny, individual things shaping an entire organism; this was the scientific equivalent of saying society was made up of capitalist individuals who naturally lived in different classes. Lysenko forced Soviet science to conform to his political expectations by directing professors, researchers, etc. to only study those ideas and models that reflected socialist expectations. Any scientific ideas that didn’t agree with communist ideology (as interpreted by Stalin or one of his lieutenants) had to be abandoned.

The absurd thing is that even though the full structure of the DNA molecule wasn’t fully understood until the later work of Watson, Crick and Franklin by the mid-1950s, we could still see this molecule with its chromosomes, alleles, small bits, and such. Facts or reality do not really matter much to the ideologue though. Ideological purity is more important than possessing, and adhering to, the correct information. Thus, science in the Soviet Union—at least when it came to genetics—made the Communist Party and Stalin’s personal authority, and not physical-objective reality, the measure of what is true and what is not. In a scene resembling something out of one of Orwell’s novels, one Soviet scientist was apparently commanded to recant his “faith” in chromosomes by an important Soviet diplomat named Vyacheslav Molotov. The scientist had the courage to reply, “But does Comrade Molotov know more about genetics than I do?” The scientist, and anyone else who did not follow the party line, was dismissed. In the case of Vavilov, he was actually imprisoned for “believing in” chromosomes. Lysenko’s interference set Russian science back decades.[14]

A similar situation played itself out in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. A German scientist attended a lecture on the theory of relativity given by the famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein in the United States. The scientist returned to Germany excited by the paradigm[15] changing implications of Einstein’s ideas. Excitement turned to disappointment, I am sure, when he was told to forget relativity because Einstein was teaching “Jewish physics”.

According to Philipp Lenard (1862-1947), an anti-Semitic and Nazi supporter of the so-called Deutsche Physik (or “German physics”) movement, Einstein couldn’t properly see the physical world because of his Jewishness. Lenard argued Jews “conspicuously [lack] understanding for the truth…being in this respect in contrast to the Aryan research scientist with his careful and serious will to truth…Jewish physics is thus a phantom and a phenomenon of degeneration of fundamental German Physics.”[16]

Lenard’s view was, and remains, demonstrably false (stupid even): between the years 1905 to 1931 no fewer than ten German Jews were awarded Nobel Prizes for their contributions to science; moreover, as of 2016 the final of 20 predictions made by Einstein based on his theory of relativity was confirmed observationally, e.g. as the earth spins the surrounding space-time warps into a swirl like whip cream spun on top of a latte.

For the record there’s no such thing as either German or socialist or Jewish physics or biology (there’s just physics and biology). However, the communist and Nazi examples illustrate facts don’t matter to ideologues; it’s more important, it would seem, to force the world to fit our expectations.

Few of us actually appreciate how completely arbitrary[17] or fabricated and accidental our worldviews are: if we were born to different parents at a different time on a different continent it’s clear we would look at the world differently than we currently do. If this is the case, and we end up where we are by a sort of cosmic accident, are any of us ever justified believing that the way we just so happen to look at the world right now is either the right or only way of perceiving that world? Is truth determined by our origins?[18] Or does truth exist as something independent of us that we are obliged to follow if, and when, we come to an awareness of it?

Although certain ways of looking at the world are definitely better than others, there really is no single, right way, no approach, which best describes the world we inhabit.[19] So far as I can tell there are only preferences and prejudices. The ideas we entertain as true are so near and dear to us we rarely see them for what they are—a snapshot of us fixed in time. Ideas aren’t outside of us (they wouldn’t even exist if humankind didn’t). Ideas reflect the values, assumptions, and emotions of the individual and do not describe how the universe actually works.

For instance, I am a 21st Century Canadian. Although growing up in a democracy, my understanding of what constitutes a genuine democratic society is completely different from one held by an ancient Greek from the city-state of Athens in the 4th century BCE.

An Athenian would have no problem accepting that the gods divided people into masters and slaves whereas my modern sensibility makes slavery completely incompatible with anything resembling democracy. I was also raised Catholic and taught by well-meaning parents, teachers and priests the value of honesty and humility. For all intents and purposes I believed what I was taught was right (true) and living any other way somehow intrinsically wrong. Yet, by contrast, young boys in ancient Sparta were taught the value of being cunning, shrewd, calculating, and to steal; it was only ever wrong to steal if you were caught.[20] The way I was raised was fundamentally different than how Spartan youth were. Thinking then is a sort of incidental thing reflecting less the truth and more or less a truth as it happens to be understood in space and time.

Despite the fact different groups or governments value different ideas or possess differing worldviews over time, this doesn’t stop most of us from thinking we ourselves somehow are fortunate enough to possess the right understanding or right ideas. Yet, again, our particular understanding is just a snapshot in time of a person (you) who just so happens to live where they (you) do, had the parents they (you) did, lived under the political/economic system they (you) do, and so on.

So, whether you believe baseball is better than cricket, that women should remain subordinate to men or not, that the economy cannot be tampered with for the sake of the environment or not, or if you prescribe to a religion or not, etc. at some level you likely feel your particular way of looking at the world is closer to the truth than not.[21] If our worldviews are just incidental collections of ideas which we just so happen to believe because of when and where we’re born, then what constitutes truth? What is knowledge? Is there such a thing as one correct way of looking at the world?

I fancy there isn’t…



[1] Meme: an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation; a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. copied and spread rapidly by Internet users.

[2] Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, p.16-20.

[3] Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

[4] Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, p.103.

[5] Ideology: a collection of beliefs held by an individual and shared across broad swaths of either a group or society in general; a set of conscious and unconscious ideas making up one’s beliefs, goals, expectations, motivations and worldview.

[6] Inexorable: impossible to stop or prevent.

[7] Proletariat: Karl Marx, the father of communist ideology, argued history was a class struggle between the wealthy or those that “have” (the bourgeoisie) and the lower classes or those that “have not” (the proletariat).

[8] Trickle-down economics is a theory that says benefits for the wealthy “trickle-down” to everyone else. These benefits are usually tax cuts on businesses, high-income earners, etc. The wealthy use any extra cash from tax cuts to start up new businesses (which leads to increased employment for the lower and middle classes). Based on research completed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) trick-down economics doesn’t work, i.e. researchers found that when top earners in society make more money, it actually slows down economic growth. On the other hand, when poorer people earn more, society and the economy as a whole demonstrably benefits. Researchers calculated that when the richest 20% of society increase their income by one percentage point, the annual rate of overall growth shrinks by nearly 0.1% within five years. By contrast, when the lowest 20% of earners see their income grow by one percentage point, the rate of growth increases by nearly 0.4% over the same period. See:

[9] Wealth always gravitates to power in the absence of governments passing laws distributing wealth more generally.

[10] Free-market fundamentalist is a term used by political scientists to identify individuals who have unwavering faith in capitalism.

[11] If you recall, George Orwell’s character Winston Smith rewrote newspapers, history, etc. to present a picture of reality that the government wanted to project.

[12] Marxism-Leninism was the adaptation of the political philosophy known as Marxism by the Soviet Union’s first dictator, Vladimir Lenin. Karl Marx believed communism naturally emerged out of industrialized countries where capitalism was fully-developed. Lenin, however, had to adapt Marxism to Russia’s specific situation, i.e. Russia’s was not an industrial society but an agricultural one. Lenin believed communism was attainable only through the work of a small revolutionary party that directed the revolution until the proletariat (workers) established a dictatorship.

[13] Deleterious: causing ongoing harm or damage.

[14] Alec Nove, Stalinism and After, p.104-105.

[15] Paradigm: a typical example or patter of something; a model, e.g. the heliocentric model replaced the geocentric view thereby changing our paradigm or understanding of the solar system.

[16] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p.251.

[17] Arbitrary: based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.

[18] Dick Cheney was the vice-president of the United States during the presidency of George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. Cheney opposed giving gay people equality in America until he found out that his own daughter was a lesbian. He suddenly became supportive of gay rights; it would appear Cheney’s idea of truth is not based on the consistent application of his principles but on how he is personally affected at any given time. He is not unique (we are all frequently arbitrary in our standards). The ancient Greeks identified the quality of empathy as essential to possessing a true knowledge of the world. If we do not appreciate how our beliefs and actions affect others, then we end up walking around like miniature-gods imposing our world and our will on to others. If truth exists, it is something consistent and it does not contradict reality; it isn’t something we choose to think but it is something that chooses us, e.g. if we value our own personal freedom, therefore, we should value and extend that self-same freedom to others (regardless of whether or not we happen to like or dislike what those others want to do with that freedom). Truth is discerned through empathy and a consistent (not self-interested or selective) application of ethics and principles.

[19] With that said, thinking scientifically (or using the scientific method) is demonstrably better when it comes to producing trustworthy knowledge and understanding compared to what passes for knowledge coming from the various ideologies, pseudo-scientific ways of looking at the world, or supernatural knowledge systems.

[20] L. S. Vygotsky, Educational Psychology, p.220.

[21] You might even feel a combination of anger and compassion at the ignorance of others who don’t accept the validity or truth of your view.


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