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Del Noce & The Left’s Dead End

The problems of abandoning the religious dimension in political thought

Our own frequent commenter Carlo Lancellotti, translator of the late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce (see The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization) has written a terrific article for Commonweal, titled “The Dead End Of The Left? Augusto Del Noce’s Critique Of Modern Politics.” 

Lancellotti begins by talking about politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Left began to abandon its traditional base in economic theory, and embraced cultural politics. The Italian philosopher Del Noce was a part of the debate among Catholic intellectuals at the time. Del Noce had himself, as a young man, briefly been part of the anti-fascist alliance between Italian Catholics and Italian Marxists, but he became uneasy over the willingness of Marxists to justify anything, even violence, for the sake of the Revolution. He began to read Marx systematically in an attempt to confront his misgivings. Lancellotti:

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.

In the postwar period, Del Noce observed that Marxist ideas became much more popular. But then a strange thing happened: as cultural Marxism moved from triumph to triumph, economic Marxism failed. Consumer capitalism was popular, and growing ever more so. This violated Marx’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably yield to socialism. What if Marx was wrong? What if the Revolution was not going to come? Lancellotti again:

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.”

What is especially insightful in Del Noce’s analysis is his awareness that the West — yes, the anti-communist West — had unknowingly accepted Marx’s materialist analysis of meaning:

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.


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.

And here we are today. Read the whole thing. It’s important to do so to understand our times. Lancellotti goes on to talk about the “dead end” of the Left coming from its refusal to admit that man has a religious dimension, and that this dimension has to inform politics. “To Del Noce,” writes Lancellotti, “the religious dimension meant that human beings are not reducible to sociological, economic, and biological factors.”

This is not, by the way, a simplistic “Republican Party at prayer” prescription. Lancellotti’s article is written for a liberal Catholic audience, but it’s very clear that Del Noce’s analysis applies to the failures of right-wing political thought too. Generally speaking, our side mobilized a popular Moralistic Therapeutic Deist version of Christianity as the religious auxiliary for consumer capitalism. I hope Lancellotti will write an essay critiquing the contemporary Right from a Del Nocian point of view. It seems to me that the Indiana RFRA debacle (when Big Business forced the GOP-governed state to abandon its mild religious liberty law) was the Great Unmasking of American political conservatism: the moment when the materialism that dominates the Republican Party manifested as an undeniably anti-religious force, a force that exists to dismantle tradition. Just like Marx said it was. 

We on the Right have not yet faced the “cultural Marxism” that has been thoroughly absorbed by our own political and religious institutions (e.g., the churches that celebrate capitalism uncritically). I wonder if we even can. Contemporary Americans have been thoroughly catechized by a culture that teaches that the desiring individual is the center of our politics, and of all reality. The only institution that might have stood up to that is the Church, but it has failed to do so. Alas, the Right has also reached a dead end, it seems to me, though maybe it will be easier for us to find a way out of it, because at least in theory (as distinct from practice), we don’t deny the religious dimension.

[Readers, it’s Orthodox Good Friday. I am not going to be posting here today, though I scheduled this post to go up in advance. I will approve comments tonight. Until then, please be patient.]



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