Photo: Jacques Lebleu

The Dead End of the Left?

Augusto Del Noce’s Critique of Modern Politics

In the Summer of 1969, while Europe was still in the turmoil of the student rebellion that had started in France the year before, the prestigious French journal Esprit published an exchange between two of the best-known Catholic intellectuals of the time. One was Jean-Marie Domenach, who in 1957 had succeeded Emmanuel Mounier as editor of Esprit and de facto flag-bearer of “progressive” French Catholicism. The other was Thomas Molnar, the distinguished Hungarian-American philosopher and historian (and a regular Commonweal contributor). Domenach regarded Molnar as a representative of the “intelligent right” and asked him to comment on the impasse de la gauche, the “dead end of the left,” at the end of the 1960s. The resulting article, together with a long reply by Domenach and a brief rejoinder by Molnar, appeared in the July-August 1969 issue of Esprit.

It immediately attracted the attention of another important Catholic intellectual, the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who had the debate translated into Italian and published as a book, together with his own introductory essay. The Molnar-Domenach-Del Noce discussion, titled Il vicolo cieco della sinistra, is a unique document of the intra-Catholic debate at the end of the ’60s, but it is also relevant to today’s debates about the relationship between Catholicism and politics. In many ways, Western politics as we know it, and especially progressive politics, took shape at that time. That period saw the rise of the so-called New Left, a moniker that has been used to designate a broad array of political movements that privileged the advancement of individual “civil rights” (women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights) over more traditional concerns of the left such as the condition of laborers, economic inequality, and unionization. As a symbolic turning point in the transformation of the left, historians in the United States often cite the memorable Democratic convention of 1972, in which activists influenced by the New Left gained influence at the expense of organized labor and other traditional constituencies of the party. But similar transformations were taking place in Europe, albeit less visibly—on the surface, European leftist parties remained committed throughout the 1970s to their traditional political cultures (either orthodox Marxism or forms of social democracy). Nonetheless, perceptive intellectuals like Del Noce could see that old-fashioned leftist politics were in a crisis.

Today, few outside of Italy—and not even many Italians—are familiar with Del Noce’s work. But his intellectual journey exemplifies the experience of many European Catholics of his generation. Born in 1910, Del Noce had come of age under Fascism. In the 1930s Italian Catholicism had sought and found a modus vivendi with Mussolini’s regime. While most Catholics were not Fascists, many thought that Fascism cold be “used” to defeat what they regarded as two great enemies of the church: bourgeois liberalism and revolutionary socialism. The young Del Noce disagreed because he believed that Fascism’s violence was incompatible with Christianity. He had been greatly influenced by the work of Jacques Maritain, and especially by the 1936 book Integral Humanism, in which Maritain had decisively criticized “medievalism”—the view that Catholics should just reject modernity entirely to pursue the restoration of an integrally Christian society, inspired by the medieval ideal of a “sacred empire.” Maritain rejected the idea of a Catholic-Fascist alliance and advocated a form of Christian humanism open to the positive contributions of modernity, including some aspects of Marxism.

The question of Catholic-Marxist dialogue would become urgent a few years later, when Europe became engulfed by war and barbarism. Some young Catholics of Del Noce’s generation came to the conclusion that the fight against Fascism required an alliance between Christianity and Marxism. This was the guiding principle of the so-called Communist-Catholic movement, which Del Noce himself joined for a time. In that respect, his experience will feel foreign to American Catholics; in the United States, the church was vehemently anti-Communist and very few Catholics had Marxist sympathies. But the same moral uneasiness that had made Del Noce an anti-Fascist soon made him uncomfortable with the Marxist-Leninist idea that violence is justified for the sake of the revolution. To address this uneasiness he studied systematically the works of Karl Marx. This marked a turning point in his intellectual life.

Contra the “Catholic Left,” which tended to regard Marx’s atheism as accidental, and tried to rescue his socio-political analysis from his religious views, Del Noce concluded that what Marx proposed was not just a new theory of history or a new program of political economy, but a new anthropology, one completely different from the Christian tradition. (Louis Dupré had made a similar argument in the pages of Commonweal; see “Marx and Religion: An Impossible Marriage,” April 26, 1968.) Marx viewed humans as “social beings” entirely determined by historical and material circumstances rather than by their relationship with God. He viewed human reason as purely instrumental—a tool of production and social organization rather than the capacity to contemplate the truth and participate in the divine wisdom. Finally, Marx viewed liberation as the fruit of political action, not as a personal process of conversion aided by grace. Marxist politics was not guided by fixed and absolute ethical principles, because ethics, along with philosophy, was absorbed into politics. Del Noce concluded that there was no way to rescue Marx’s politics from his atheism, which had as much to do with his view of man as with his view of God.

Augusto Del Noce in 1989 (Augusto Casasoli / a3 / Contrasto / Redux)

Nonetheless, after World War II Marxism experienced a resurgence in Western Europe, not only among intellectuals and politicians but also in mainstream culture. But Del Noce noticed that at the same time society was moving in a very different direction from what Marx had predicted: capitalism kept expanding, people were eagerly embracing consumerism, and the prospect of a Communist revolution seemed more and more remote. To Del Noce, this simultaneous success and defeat of Marxism pointed to a deep contradiction. On the one hand, Marx had taught historical materialism, the doctrine that metaphysical and ethical ideas are just ideological covers for economic and political interests. On the other hand, he had prophesied that the expansion of capitalism would inevitably lead to revolution, followed by the “new man,” the “classless society,” the “reign of freedom.” But what if the revolution did not arrive, if the “new man” never materialized?

In that case, Del Noce realized, Marxist historical materialism would degenerate into a form of radical relativism—into the idea that philosophical and moral concepts are just reflections of historical and economic circumstances and have no permanent validity. This would have to include the concept of injustice, without which a critique of capitalism would be hard, if not impossible, to uphold. A post-Marxist culture—one that kept Marx’s radical materialism and denial of religious transcendence, while dispensing with his confident predictions about the self-destruction of capitalism—would naturally tend to be radically bourgeois. By that, Del Noce meant a society that views “everything as an object of trade” and “as an instrument” to be used in the pursuit of individualized “well-being.” Such bourgeois society would be highly individualistic, because it could not recognize any cultural or religious “common good.” In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the power of the bourgeois worldview to dissolve all cultural and religious allegiances into a universal market. Now, ironically, Marxist ideas (which Del Noce viewed as a much larger and more influential phenomenon than political Marxism in a strict sense) had helped bring that process to completion. At a conference in Rome in 1968, Del Noce looked back at recent history and concluded that the post-Marxist culture would be “a society that accepts all of Marxism’s negations against contemplative thought, religion, and metaphysics; that accepts, therefore, the Marxist reduction of ideas to instruments of production. But which, on the other hand, rejects the revolutionary-messianic aspects of Marxism, and thus all the religious elements that remain within the revolutionary idea. In this regard, it truly represents the bourgeois spirit in its pure state, the bourgeois spirit triumphant over its two traditional adversaries, transcendent religion and revolutionary thought.”

This was a very unconventional diagnosis. At the time, Communism remained a major political force worldwide, and Marxist ideas influenced large sectors of Western culture, including Catholic culture. Del Noce’s position was also out of step with the conservative habit of associating anti-Communism with an uncritical exaltation of the West. He was highly critical of the post–World War II “Western project of progressive modernization based on science and technology,” by which he did not mean science and technology per se but rather technocracy, the notion that all social problems can be solved by technical progress and economic growth, and that society must be ruled by experts. According to Del Noce this view, quite common among American intellectuals (for examples, see George M. Marsden’s masterful overview in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment), was not an adequate response to Marxism, not least because it shared Marx’s fundamental assumptions: the primacy of the economic dimension of life, an instrumentalist idea of knowledge, the priority of action over contemplation. Under close inspection, the affluent Western consumer of the 1960s looked suspiciously like Marx’s homo economicus. The main difference was that the Marxist dream of a revolutionary catharsis had transmogrified into a bourgeois utopia of liberation from sexual repression and the shackles of traditional morality.

The Marxist dream of a revolutionary catharsis had transmogrified into a bourgeois utopia of liberation from sexual repression and the shackles of traditional morality.

Del Noce also reflected deeply on the political repercussions of the advent of such “post-Marxist bourgeois society.” He believed that, ironically, the enduring influence of Marxist ideas would leave the left ill-equipped to correct the excesses of capitalism. If values like justice and human dignity do not have an objective reality rooted in a metaphysical order knowable by reason, then social criticism becomes purely negative. It can unmask the hypocrisy and contradictions of ideals like religion, family, and country, but there is no conceptual ground for new ideals. Secondly, Del Noce thought that the left itself was doomed to become “bourgeoisified,” by losing its ties to the working classes and becoming focused on causes broadly linked with sexuality. By doing so it would end up embracing an essentially individualistic and secular idea of happiness, which French sociologist Jacques Ellul had called the bourgeois trait par excellence. Conversely, politics would no longer be the expression of a fabric of social life organized around families, churches, ethnic neighborhoods, trade unions, etc., because all of them were being undermined by the individualism of the new culture.

Indeed, Del Noce said, if a society’s only ideal is the expansion of individual “well-being,” the left faces two equally bad options. One is to embrace what he calls the “reality principle,” and to compromise with the realities of late capitalism. Then the left must necessarily become the party of the technocratic elites, and end up pursuing power for power’s sake, because in the vacuum of ideals left behind by Marxism there is no common ground between the elites and the masses. This “realistic left” can only organize itself around two principles: trust in science and technology, and what Del Noce calls “vitalism,” sexual liberation, which provides a “mystified,” bourgeois replacement of the revolution. The second option is what Del Noce calls “unrealism”: dreaming the impossible, rejecting existing reality altogether, and embracing political extremism in various forms, all of which are destined for defeat. Unrealism “becomes an accomplice of the first attitude in the global rejection of all values.”

What was “the left” to begin with? What were its cultural foundations and what was its relationship with Marxism?

In light of all of this, it should be clear why Del Noce was very interested when, in 1969, Jean-Marie Domenach began talking about the “dead end of the left.” Domenach was responding to the dramatic events of 1968. In the East, the invasion of Czechoslovakia had been a stark reminder that, in the Soviet Union, Marxism had generated an oppressive multinational empire ruled by an oligarchy. In the West, the May student protesters had accused European social democracy of having thoroughly embraced technocratic politics and reconciled itself with capitalism in the name of economic development and mass consumption. Unfortunately, the students’ demands for revolutionary social change were at risk of degenerating into what Domenach called “vulgar anarchism” and never going “beyond the stage of utopian stammering.” To get beyond its current impasse, the left would have to chart a new route between the Scylla of actually existing socialism (in both its Eastern and Western forms) and the Charybdis of the “great refusal” of 1968. Clearly this predicament confirmed Del Noce’s diagnosis and raised deeper questions. What was “the left” to begin with? What were its cultural foundations and what was its relationship with Marxism? Was its “dead end” just a contingent political circumstance, or did it reveal a deeper cultural crisis?

Surprisingly—and despite the polemical punches they threw at each other in their exchange—Molnar and Domenach agreed that the left faced a philosophical crisis. Molnar put it quite bluntly: the left is doomed to oscillate between utopian anarchism and extreme political realism because of a philosophical mistake. He quoted Jacques Maritain in The Peasant of the Garonne: “The pure man of the left detests being, always preferring, in principle, in the words of Rousseau, what is not to what is.” But while Maritain viewed this as a mere temperamental inclination, Molnar believed that in the modern age “ontological restlessness” had evolved into a systematic and militant attitude, a habit of denying reality and “chasing the imaginary.” Molnar probably had in mind the counter-culture of the late ’60s, such as radical pacifism, absolute sexual freedom, the hippie movement, etc. However, he also cites some famous French left-wing intellectuals of his time, whose work is still very influential in American academia: Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault. The latter, in particular, theorized the “death of man,” arguing that “human nature” is just a cultural construction, and “man” must be recognized as the product of its social and cultural circumstances, a “thing among things.” It is not hard to draw a line from Foucault’s ideas to today’s theories about gender and sexuality. Molnar was probably referring to him when he wrote that “becoming” took priority over “being” and “above all there is no solid substratum behind events and phenomena!... The enterprise of dissolving human nature is central, although it disguises itself as a recognition of the malleability of man.”

For his part, Domenach was willing to concede that the left had become unmoored from “Being”—that is, from the recognition of the ontological and moral realities, including human nature itself, that necessarily constrain any realistic political action. “The characteristic disease of the left is its passion for the limitless,” he wrote.

Freedom, identified with a vague notion of nature, unfolds in a vacuum, and toward what ends? Rest, happiness, friendship. These are the first fruits of Being, but they are utopian and ineffectual because they are not ordered to any hierarchy of values. In truth, Being is not a hidden treasure that will free itself…by exploding the crust of a repressive society. Being is an ascending totality within which human relationships are articulated: among humans, with nature, and with the supernatural. If Being is not affirmed as an order of values, it is pushed into the realm of dreams; being formless, it is confused with the impossible delights of a lost world or an imaginary world.

It was therefore time for the left to ask metaphysical questions, even at the cost of evoking laughter from “ideologues and tacticians.” In particular, it was time to have some “idea of man and of his life in community.” Lacking that, the left had “allowed itself to be locked up in a society that has no other shared goal but unlimited production and consumption, in a culture that has broken away from human totality.”

Domenach’s response to Molnar struck Del Noce as very significant. First of all, in the statement that “Being” will not “free itself...by exploding the crust of a repressive society,” Del Noce recognized his own criticism of the “new” left. Intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich had theorized that there is a link between social oppression and sexual inhibition, and that the left should join the “fight against repression” because economic and sexual liberation go hand in hand. Now, Domenach agreed that this was a misunderstanding and that affirming a purely instinctual idea of freedom (“a vague notion of nature,” another stab at Marcuse) was “utopian and ineffectual.” On his part, Del Noce viewed the sexual revolution as part of the post-Marxist bourgeois culture, because under the cover of “freedom” it actually affirmed an individualistic and fundamentally irreligious view of man as producer and consumer, in which the human body lost its symbolic dimension to become an instrument of “well-being” and an object of trade. The left’s failure to grasp this development had created a paradoxical situation, which Del Noce describes as follows:

If by “right” we mean faithfulness to the spirit of tradition, meaning the tradition that talks about an uncreated order of values, which are grasped though intellectual intuition and are independent of any arbitrary will, not even the divine one; and if by “left” we mean, on the contrary, the rejection not merely of certain historical superstructures but of those very values, which are “unmasked” to show their true nature as oppressive ideologies, imposed by the dominant classes in order to protect themselves, well, then it seems that in no other historical period has the left advanced so dramatically as during the last quarter of a century…. And yet, one has to say that Domenach is right: if by “right” we mean “management technique at the service of the strongest,” regardless of what ideologies are used to justify this management, we have to say that its victory has never been so complete, because it has been able to turn completely the culture of the left into its own tool.

Moreover, Del Noce viewed Domenach’s statement that Being “must be affirmed as an order of values” as a welcome change from a long-standing attitude of progressive Catholicism. Since the 1950s, left-wing Catholics had argued that what is needed to dialogue with the secular world is “a philosophically neutral left, guided only by the ethical presupposition of the equal dignity of every human person” and therefore “politics, metaphysics, and religion must be kept rigorously distinguished.” Now, by admitting the need for some “idea of man and of his life in community,” Domenach was recognizing that in human societies ethics always reflects an “ontology,” a vision of humanity and its place in the universe, usually based on a mythical historical narrative, or on explicit philosophical and religious foundations. Conversely, if ethics is affirmed in an ontological vacuum, without simultaneously affirming a clear and explicit “idea of man,” it loses traction. This has been, arguably, the experience of politically engaged Catholics, both in Europe and in the United States, during the past fifty years: a long series of rear-guard battles on ethical issues (divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, etc.) in a cultural context in which the philosophical and religious images (of human life, of marriage, of love) that underpinned those ethical values has faded. As a consequence, little can be gained by producing more comprehensive ethical lists, such as a “consistent ethics of life.” Ethical appeals not backed by “Being” are destined either to fall on deaf ears, as expressions of personal religious preferences, or to develop into moralistic ideologies (think of “political correctness”) backed by the will to power.

The true clash is between two conceptions of life.

Fifty years later, it is fair to say that Del Noce’s hopes about the Molnar-Domenach debate were not realized. Still, that distant discussion helps us understand what could be called the “curse” of politics in contemporary Western societies. On the one hand, progressivism seems firmly committed to the post-Marxist idea that the road to liberation passes through the denial of Domenach’s “ascending totality within which human relationships are articulated.” In fact, the very notion of an “order of being” is viewed as “repressive” by a culture that tends to identify freedom with unconstrained self-determination (Domenach’s “delirium of the limitless”).  On the other hand, our culture has largely embraced a form of “scientism” that excludes all mythical, philosophical, and religious narratives from the public debate except one: the myth of never-ending technological progress. But, as Del Noce remarked, the technological mindset is “the most conservative in the history of the world” because it radically denies the possibility of “another reality.” Technological progress keeps changing the means of production, but does not bring about any moral change. The paradox is that these two trends (the leftist critique of authority and conservative technocracy) converged into what Del Noce called prophetically “the alliance between the technocratic right and the cultural left.” Its result has been that “separation between the ruling class and the masses becomes extreme.” Indeed, one plausible interpretation of the election of Donald Trump is that today many people who do not benefit from the expansion of technology feel that the only political choice is between an alien liberal technocracy and tribalism.

If this diagnosis is correct, the way to move forward is, in a sense, by going back and calling into question some of the ideas of the 1960s; in particular, the notion that political debate in a pluralist society must be “sterilized” so that it excludes fundamental religious and philosophical questions. The truth is that even when these questions are not asked, they are always answered, even if implicitly and covertly. In particular, according to Del Noce, there is an implicit philosophical question that dominates contemporary politics. It is the struggle between two “philosophical anthropologies”:

The true clash is between two conceptions of life. One could be described in terms of the religious dimension or of the presence of the divine in us; it certainly achieves its fullness in Christian thought, or in fact in Catholic thought, but it is not per se specifically Christian in the proper sense.... According to the second conception—the instrumentalist one, found in positivism, pragmatism, Marxism, and evolutionism in general, in its philosophic extension—there is nothing in spirit and in reason that possesses an independent metaphysical origin.

To Del Noce, the religious dimension meant that human beings are not reducible to sociological, economic, and biological factors. As Domenach had put it, “in man there is always something more.” To be human means to be able to raise questions of meaning that transcend our historical-material context—including religious questions.

By insisting that the true fault line of contemporary history ran between those who affirmed man’s religious dimension and those who denied it, Del Noce offered an unusual perspective on Catholic participation in the public arena. He thought its focus should be neither on protecting the power of the institutional church, nor on some list of religiously neutral ethical concerns, but rather on a conception of human flourishing that reflects the religious dimension. This would include an idea of education that is not just utilitarian but respects the deeper human need for beauty and knowledge as ends in themselves; respect for work as an expression of the human desire to build and to serve, not just a tool at the service of profit and economic growth; love for what Simone Weil called “rootedness”—namely “the real, active, and natural participation in the life of the community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future”; a passion for freedom, not as empty self-determination, but as protection of the most specifically human sphere, which is precisely the religious dimension, the search for meaning. A Catholic political orientation based on the awareness of the religious dimension would also allow—and indeed require—us to struggle for justice, but the justice we struggled for would not be our invention, much less a convenient fiction. It would be a moral reality that we recognize inside and outside of ourselves and to which we must ascend. 

Published in the April 13, 2018 issue: 

Carlo Lancellotti is professor of mathematics at the City University of New York (College of Staten Island), and editor and translator of Augusto Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

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