Marxism and the Crisis of Modernity
Marxism and the Crisis of Modernity
“Today’s reality shows us that the eclipse of authority does not coincide at all with the advent of liberation, but rather with that of power, and totalitarian systems are the tangible expression of this substitution.” –Augusto del Noce
“It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards.”
So wrote the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), whose thought stood, in part, as a warning to nineteenth-century Europe against the collectivist hopes that would characterize the twentieth century. Though well known in Denmark during his lifetime, Kierkegaard’s thought did not gain worldwide purchase until his works were translated from his native Danish into German, French, and English in the decades after his death. Such is the fate of those separated by language from a wider world. And it was only after the World Wars that the world perhaps appreciated the full prophetic weight of his thought, culminating in the twentieth-century existential, theological, and philosophical movements that bear his imprint. Such is the fate of prophets and those unable to heed their warnings. Though we must live life forwards and understand it backwards, we may still question how different the twentieth century may have been if a wider world had understood Kierkegaard before that century’s events shattered the collectivist hopes that ushered it in.
With regard to the present century, the same must now be asked of another great thinker, Augusto Del Noce (1910–1989), who bore witness to the tragedies of the twentieth century from his beloved Italy. Del Noce was regarded in his native Italy as a preeminent political thinker and philosopher of the post-World War II period. Like Kierkegaard, he was known provincially but not internationally during his lifetime. However, thanks to the recent translation efforts of Carlo Lancellotti, professor of mathematics and physics at the City University of New York (College of Staten Island), Del Noce’s thought is receiving the broad recognition that it deserves. In The Crisis of Modernity, Lancellotti assembles an important selection of Del Noce’s essays on the cultural history of the twentieth century. The present age demands their study.
Del Noce set out to understand the human condition in modernity and, in particular, the secularization of Western culture. He advances a genealogical history of modern philosophy to trace the West’s turn toward atheism and its shift away from classical metaphysics and religion. In this respect, his project and methods recall those of Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss. Del Noce asserts that “modernity,” together with its attendant rationalism, atheism, and materialism, is one possible outcome—a perilous outcome—of a modern philosophical struggle over the future and fate of Western metaphysics and culture. Del Noce does not view modernity as representing the necessary consequence of history, as a logical result of a qualitative development in thought. Modernity is rather the culmination of a certain line of rationalist movements—such as idealism, Marxism, and positivism—that presuppose the very atheism that many now view as the logical endpoint of Western culture. Del Noce warns that the West’s movement toward atheism will not end in fulfillment but in nihilism.
For Del Noce, the story of modernity is the story of Marxism’s successes and failures. Del Noce maintains that Marxism succeeded to the extent that its atheism and historical materialism thoroughly secularized and disenchanted Western culture. It failed because the global proletarian revolution that was supposed to follow and replace the bourgeois order never occurred. Ironically, Marxism enthroned the very bourgeois society it set out to overthrow—and a radically bourgeois society at that. For capitalism and bourgeois values only expanded in the desacralized spaces that Marxism left behind. Del Noce predicted that, emptied of the religious values that had historically grounded the West, a pure bourgeois spirit would emerge—a spirit shorn of the transcendent and characterized by increasing individualism, materialism, and moral relativism.
In fact, the ensuing radical bourgeois order rejected Marxism’s revolutionary messianism and its call for a classless society. Instead, it leaped into a zealous consumerism that dissolves all cultural, religious, and metaphysical meaning into a materialistic fog of economic, political, and cultural struggle. Such struggle, Del Noce warned, would forge a balkanized and opulent society bereft of faith and rife with ideological conflict, one that is perceived to be a system of forces and not of values. Eventually, the ideas of truth, morality, and universal reason are seen as malleable tools for asserting power and not as vessels of authority. Honest debate collapses, as truth claims are viewed and rebuffed as expressions of class, biological, or other interests. What then fills the desacralized spaces is a political religiosity that increasingly brooks no compromise.
Ultimately, Del Noce predicts the emergence of a new totalitarianism that will reduce form to force, value to utility, truth to function, and authority to power. Perhaps Del Noce’s prediction is already glimpsed through the fog. This article takes The Crisis of Modernity as its starting point to introduce Del Noce’s thought on Marxism’s successes and failures and what they mean for our future. We have much to learn from Del Noce, who saw with prescient clarity what life after Marxism may bring if we do not chart a new course.
An Introduction to Del Noce
Augusto Del Noce was born in Tuscany, Italy in 1910, the descendant of an aristocratic Catholic family from the Duchy of Savoy. Del Noce would grow up in its former capital, Turin, a region that had long been a cultural meeting point between Italy and France. He later studied philosophy at the University of Turin and completed his degree in 1932, writing his dissertation on the religious interpretation of Descartes in Nicolas Malebranche’s philosophy. He was early drawn to the works of Jacques Maritain, whom Del Noce esteemed as a philosopher committed to developing a non-reactionary interpretation of modern history in the light of the classical and Christian traditions. He was particularly drawn to Maritain’s willingness to challenge the secular philosophical-historical accounts of Hegel, Marx, and Comte. Del Noce’s early interest in the trajectory of modern philosophy toward secularism would greatly shape his future thought.
Del Noce came of age during a time of great cultural shifts. Italian Catholics in the 1930s perceived two growing enemies of the church: bourgeois liberalism and revolutionary socialism. Though many Italian Catholics were not fascists, many thought fascism—including Mussolini’s Italian Fascism—could be “used” to repel these existential threats. Del Noce, however, rejected Fascism’s violence as incompatible with Christianity and, like Maritain, he rejected a Catholic-Fascist alliance. Though Del Noce believed the church should be open to modernizing influences, even some aspects of Marxism, he did not believe the church should abandon its religious tenets. The church’s engagement with Marxist ideas would become more relevant (and questionable) in the years after World War II as Marxism’s influence grew.
In the years after World War II, as many European intellectuals turned to Marxism, many Catholics concluded that the defense of civilization against Fascist and Nazi savagery required a reconciliation between Christianity and Marxism. As Carlo Lancellotti notes in his introduction to The Crisis of Modernity, Del Noce himself was initially tempted by the idea. However, as Del Noce systematically examined Marxist thought, he came to reject a Catholic-Marxist alliance for the same reason he rejected a Catholic-Fascist alliance: the Marxist-Leninist idea that violence is justified in pursuit of the revolution is incompatible with Christianity. Further, unlike many who viewed Marxism’s atheism as incidental to the Marxist enterprise, Del Noce recognized atheism as a precondition. He came to see that “all of Marx’s thought is a consistent development of the radical metaphysical principle that freedom requires self-creation, and thus the rejection of all possible forms of dependence, especially dependence on God.” Therefore, in Marxism, atheism is not the conclusion but rather the precondition of the entire system. This revelation would alter the course of Del Noce’s mature thought.
Del Noce would devote much of his philosophical life to tracing the genealogical history of Marxism and its atheistic development within, and impact on, modern philosophy. Del Noce came to view Marxism and its atheism as the logical culmination of European rationalism since Descartes. He also saw in Marxism the original idea that, through a total revolution, humankind may perfect its situation in time and forever solve the “problem” of God. As Del Noce predicted, Marxism’s aspirations were bound to fail. What that failure may beget remains to be seen, but if Del Noce is correct, then our century may already be marching toward its own tragedy.
The Revolutionary Society
Del Noce saw that Marxism stood for a new way of understanding humankind, one that is radically opposed to the Christian tradition. Under Marxism, human beings are seen as socially determined by their historical and material circumstances; they are not defined by their infinite worth before a transcendent God. In contrast to Platonic and Christian traditions, human reason is, correspondingly, a tool of social utility that is used for social organization and production, not for contemplating and communing with the divine. Marxism thus transforms the transcendent into the immanent, and subsumes all metaphysical and religious categories into the immanent economic, political, and cultural pursuits of humankind. Truth, morality, and reason are sundered from any transcendent source or natural law and become the utilitarian implements of man-as-self-creator. In Marxism, the stars thus fall to Earth and the only reality is that defined by human ends. Del Noce seeks to understand how this immanentatheist conception arose.
For Del Noce, Marxism’s atheist presupposition is a consequence of the post-Cartesian rationalist project. In his first book, Il problema dell’ateismo, he explores this line of thought and finds that the rationalist movement rejected the notion of an original fall of humanity, which later led to the rejection of all forms of transcendence and religious authority. He traces this rejection through the rationalist project and finds it recurring at the end of each major period of thought: in Giordano Bruno (Renaissance), the libertines (Cartesianism), Marquis de Sade (Enlightenment), and Marx and Nietzsche (German Idealism). However, since neither atheism nor such rejection can be proven, atheism can only justify itself as the outcome of a historical secularization process that assimilates all prior philosophical thought. Del Noce maintains that we must reject the notion that atheism represents a logical or qualitative endpoint of modern rationality. Rather, he sees an alternative to the Descartes–Nietzsche line of thought, one that leads to the refining of traditional metaphysics and that avoids the nihilism now threatening modernity—a line proceeding from Descartes, through Giambattista Vico and Blasé Pascal, to Atonio Rosmini.
In his 1979 essay “Violence and Modern Gnosticism,” Del Noce studies the consequences of following the path from Descartes to Nietzsche rather than to Rosmini. Such path, he observes, leads to a form of neo-gnostic thought that stresses the realization of human perfection in the here-and-now (the “immanentization of the eschaton” in Voegelian phraseology). Such transformation requires that we jettison all of the metaphysical, religious, and moral ideas that have, until Marx, withheld utopia—it requires Marxism’s “total revolution.” For Del Noce, the Marxist revolution implies “the replacement of religion by politics as the source of man’s liberation, since evil is a consequence of society ... and not of an original sin,” and it ultimately leads to an ennoblement of violence and the eclipse of ethics:
The ennoblement of violence is tied to the philosophical idea of total revolution, that is, of revolution as a transition from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom, to a reality that is qualitatively “totally other.” This transition implies a radical, necessarily violent break with history up to now. Therefore, the revolution cannot take place in the name of the traditional ethical principles because they are either empty words (justice, freedom), or legitimizations-mystifications of the existing order. The idea of total revolution implies the elimination of ethics.
Ethical and revolutionary thought are incompatible. Though revolutionary thought may draw a distinction between good and evil, it is one drawn between two forms of violence: one liberating and the other repressive. Marxism sanctions the former in order to overcome the latter. For so long as the revolutionary spirit pervades, violence is exalted as necessary and quasi-transcendent.
Del Noce regards Marxism as the prototype of revolutionary thought, and understands it to be much more than a political or economic doctrine. Rather, Marxism is a totalizing worldview based on “the rejection of every form of dependence and thus the extinction of religion, since God is the archetype of a worldly lord. Hence, the revolution represents a transition not just from one social situation to another, but from one stage of mankind to another ... capable of transforming human nature itself.” Such revolutionary thought, which first surfaced in Jacobinism during the French Revolution and reached its crowning moment in Marxism, steadily desacralized Western society. Del Noce contends that “all other major secular political movements of the twentieth century can be understood only in reference to Marxism, either as a development (Fascism), as an inversion (Nazism), or as its decomposition (the affluent society after the Second World War).”
Marxism thus succeeded in desacralizing Western society but, as Del Noce maintains, its success in this regard proved its undoing.
The Opulent Society
Marxism’s call for the global proletarian revolution was never answered. The “new man,” the classless society, the rationalist utopia never materialized. Marxism failed and, in the decades after World War II, its utopian dreams were mocked by a radically expanding bourgeois order. In fact, Marxism proved merely a stage in the purification of the bourgeois spirit—a useful tool for desacralizing the soil in which a radically individualistic, materialistic, and opulent society would grow. Ironically, Marxism crowned the very order it sought to depose. Marxism’s decomposition in the years after World War II was marked by the unfettered expansion of capitalism. For Del Noce, the death of the revolutionary dream gave rise to a secularized neo-gnosticism in libertine form, a new order that achieves its apotheosis in the societa opulenta, or the “opulent society.”
Del Noce predicted that the opulent society would be governed by an instrumentalist spirit that commodifies individuals and reduces them to objects. In such a society, there is an “extreme greed for things (and for other people reduced to things).” It is one in which the transcendent is assimilated into the market and value is determined by usefulness rather than by “the Good.” In such a society, “there is no idea and there is no behavior in which [the bourgeois person] cannot find some measure of good. But precisely because he thinks of everything as relatively good, there is no Truth, there is no Good; a reality in which everything is ‘useful’ excludes the possibility of absolutes.” In fact, the age-old guardian of the absolute—tradition—is replaced by a utilitarian progress measured in quantitative, not qualitative, terms: “The idea of revolution—characterized by the qualitative jump—is replaced by the idea of progress which, when it is made absolute ... means a quantitative and economic increase of the available goods.” In the opulent society, there is a materialistic reduction of value to utility, truth to function, and authority to power.
For Del Noce, materialism and consumerism expanded in the twentieth century at the cost of the moral and ethical values that had historically moored Western culture and bound it together under a “common good.” Consequently, the opulent society can no longer rationalize its civic and familial institutions with reference to ethics, morality, or their transcendent authority; it can only justify such institutions with reference to the power relations that now define a wholly immanent reality. Indeed, the loss of moral and ethical values resulted in a transformation of the notion of authority itself. Del Noce was a sensitive cultural critic, and he observed the cultural shifts of the twentieth century with a broad lens. For Del Noce, the cultural revolution of the 1960s marked an essential turning point in the West’s understanding of authority and, consequently, its future.
Authority Versus Power
If Marxism is rooted in a total rejection of every form of dependence, its alluring promise is to free humankind from such dependence. Although the opulent society did not answer Marx’s messianic call for a classless society, it upheld his insistence upon the realization of an unfettered materialistic freedom. Del Noce observes that, whereas authority in the classical tradition existed to liberate human beings from the chaos of the fallen world and guide them to a freedom that can only exist with order, modernity equates authority with repression. According to Del Noce, we must realize that “the present eclipse of authority represents the greatest among the reversals that have come to pass in history.” And this reversal, he believes, was carried out most effectively by the sexual revolution’s association of repression with the institutions of marriage and family.
In his 1975 essay “Authority versus Power,” Del Noce explores this reversal in detail. He observes that,whereas the classical tradition had understood authority as a metaphysical concept, modernity assimilates authority into the immanent categories of power. Authority is transformed from a transcendent act of subordination-liberation (“freedom to”) into an imposition of force that results in repression (“freedom from”). As authority becomes assimilated into ideological (versus metaphysical) concepts, its metaphysical value is eroded in the ideological struggles that define a post-Marxist society. Every form of authority becomes suspect; those who continue to believe in the authority of transcendent ideas (such as morality and ethics) are increasingly marginalized as oppressive or reactionary. Consequently, society becomes relativistic, as it cannot recognize any transcendent authority in which to ground value judgments. Such relativism, Del Noce believes, reveals itself in the politicization of rationality.
In his article “Augusto Del Noce on the ‘New Totalitarianism,’” Lancellotti observes that Del Noce, unlike his contemporaries, did not view the opulent society as marking a break with the totalitarian tendencies that emerged in the twentieth century. Despite its democratic institutions and professed liberalism, modern Western society exhibits the telltale sign of totalitarianism: the monopolization of power through a politicization of rationality. “Whereas older totalitarianisms politicized reason on the basis of a philosophy of history (Communism) or a mythical racial narrative (Nazism), the new one does so through the ideological invocation of ‘science’ in a very broad sense.” As such, moral, ethical, and religious appeals to authority are rejected a priori as non-rational. What emerges is a nameless and “quiet” totalitarianism that subordinates culture to politics and, thus, authority to power. What emerges is the technocratic society.
The Technocratic Society
The line that Del Noce traces from Marxism to the present, and that we have explored at surfacelevel in this article, culminates in the technocratic society and the triumph of its defining ideology: scientism. Del Noce defines scientism as the “view of science as the ‘only’ true knowledge.” For the promoter of scientism, only the empirical and objective are real; all other modes of thoughtsuch as the transcendent—are simply rejected as non-empirical, unscientific. Indeed, he “discards teleological considerations, because science does not know finality. Since scientism cannot give any proof of the (non-scientific) statement that science exhausts the sphere of rationality, it must simply banish all other forms of knowledge to the domain of pure subjectivity.” For Del Noce, scientism’s mode of thought “is, literally, a resolution of the will: the resolution to accept as real only what can be verified empirically by everyone.”
As Lancellotti observes, “the new totalitarianism does not persecute religion directly. It progressively empties it out by denying its cognitive significance, by declaring meaningless the very questions that faith is supposed to answer and pushing it into the private sphere of feelings.” Although scientism revels in dichotomies such as rational/irrational, objective/subjective, and natural/supernatural, its advocates conspicuously refuse to explain scientism’s own philosophical presuppositions. As noted above, scientism cannot, consistent with its own techniques, prove that science exhausts the sphere of rationality. As a result, Del Noce perceives a mendacity underlying the scientistic enterprise.
As Lancellotti notes, “its very scientistic postulate forces it to lie by pretending not to have a philosophy, to be purely pragmatic, so much so that it does not even give its ideology a new name but simply claims (falsely, in Del Noce’s opinion) to be the rightful heir of classical liberalism.” The technocratic society thus emphasizes consequences rather than premises. It will, for example, pursue public policy projects without subjecting their criteria of success (e.g., human flourishing, wellness) to the metaphysical scrutiny that ultimately, and inevitably, underlie all such projects. How does a society endeavor toward the “good life” if it does not have the (metaphysical) tools to conceptualize it? The answer, in part, is found in the absolutization of politics.
As the technocratic society pushes transcendent questions out of bounds, every aspect of life, including its public policy projects, are interpreted through various ideological and political frames
The “good life” is no longer perceived as a shared good, but as many possible goods, the attainment of which depends upon political, economic, and other modes of power. Since “politics lacks any ideal (as opposed to ideological) point of reference, it must necessarily degenerate into a management technique at the service of the strongest.” The individual must increasingly find meaning and influence through one or more social factions, and becomes progressively dependent upon society for both. Politics, Del Noce predicts, will supplant religion. And as the technocratic machine lurches onward, society will become “incapable of generating new ideals and new forms of life. It can only live by slowly consuming the ‘reserves of meaning’ it received from the past, until they run out and its contradictions explode.”
Life after Marxism has been defined by a contradiction: on the one hand, Marxism failed to achieve its revolution but, on the other hand, it succeeded in radically secularizing our modern world. The disenchantment of the West represents a radical turning point in Western thought and must be reversed if we are to avoid the nihilism and emptiness that Del Noce saw with such clear foresight.
His works call for the rediscovery of the transcendent—and for the authority that has liberated us from the chaos of a fallen world. His works are also a warning that freedom, while precious, must be supported by a proper metaphysical foundation. Del Noce does not view modernity as representing the necessary consequence of history, and, as such, we have a choice to make. We can continue to follow the rationalist line of thought from Descartes through Marx, or we can choose an alternative path, one forged by those like Vico, Pascal,and Rosmini that affirms the transcendent alongside the rational.
As Kierkegaard advised us at the outset, we must live life forwards and understand it backwards. Del Noce has helped us to better understand our present age, but we must embrace the alternative as we go (and live) forward.
About the author
Zachary Garrett holds a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School and resides with his wife in Chicago, Illinois.