Revolution and Reaction: First Gleanings from Augusto del Noce
Del Noce makes the argument and revolutionary and reactionary thinking are two sides of the same concept and that true Christian conservatism is something all together different.
A year after obtaining Carlo Lancellotti’s recent translations of the writings of Augusto del Noce from my son as a gift for Christmas 2021, I am finally deep diving and making headway with The Crisis of Modernity. I have been reading it off and on in large part because most of the books I read come to me via the library system. That means deadlines. Books which have to be read on deadline always take precedent over those which can wait because you actually own a copy. With all my library books returned, some extra time on my hand due to closing my Twitter account, it was time to make some real progress with del Noce. I will probably have to re-read this volume to fully ingest it before some more fulsome writing on it, but early returns confirm that he is an important author who should be read more widely, but likely won’t be because he is a difficult read. It takes a while to get oriented to his unique way of thinking, but there are many, many gems once you do. For instance, he could understand the intellectual necessity for the transgender movement without ever seeing it come to pass. It is, in essence, the revolution made personal. In order to obtain the glorious future, the current state of being must be erased. The self is thus negated and then formed ex nihilo out of the revolutionary will of the person. The new self can only be achieved once the previous form is fully erased. Under the domination of the nihilistic bourgeoise materialist techno-state, the revolution continues unabated on the personal level through transgenderism. It is all part of the decomposition of Marx, because as influential as it has been, its revolutionary nature prevents it from being sublimated into the next historical movement. But I digress.
The Crisis of Modernity is not a single work with a unified theme, rather it is a collection of essays. Similar themes will repeat themselves in multiple essays. And while this is repetitive, it can also be helpful. It gives the reader a chance to orient key ideas within a larger framework and get more comfortable with the overall contours of del Noce’s thought. Chapter 3, the essay “Revolution, Risorgimento, Tradition,” is jam packed with insight, but I want to bring two of them to the foreground here in this piece. Essentially, del Noce argues that revolutionary and reactionary thinking are in fact two sides of the same phenomenon. He also makes the case that conservatism is something completely different with its own philosophical ands theological foundations.
He begins with an exploration of the term “revolution” and its various meanings and the one that matters for our purposes is the one brought forth in Marx. It is a replacement of religion with politics as the source of man’s liberation, as the source of evil is located within society and thus society becomes the subject of blame, and not an original sin located within the person. Once society is completely swept away, it generates a new future in which nothing will resemble the old history of mankind. In a sense it brings the end to history. Marx purposefully does not go into great detail about the nature of this post-revolutionary existence in part because it will be a wholly new thing not based on the current situation.
Del Noce argues that right reactionary ideas are in fact a form of heretical Marxism. Reactionary thinking is just as utopian as is Marxist revolutionary thinking, but instead of locating the ideal society in the future beyond the revolution, it locates it in the past. The mistake of reactionaries is that while they acknowledge an enduring metaphysical order, they locate its prefect or near perfect realization in the past. Thus the present corrupted order must be swept away so as to cleanse the world and make it ready for a return to the glorious past. Whether it is a “return” to the days of “the Founders” or a “return” to some pre-modern high-medieval period, it is this notion of “return” which is decisive for the reactionary. The revolutionary is a future utopian and the reactionary is a past utopian.
With this framework in mind, one could argue that the Protestant Reformation was in fact an early proto-reactionary type movement. It represented a desire to cleanse the society from the corrupted present day Roman church by means of a “return” to the pure simplicity of the faith of the early church. They desired to return to just the teaching of the apostles and the early church as found in the scriptures. Sola scriptura becomes a key foundation point of this attempted “return” to a utopian or near utopian past. Del Noce argues that reaction always yields to revolution, though, because the glorious future is a more powerful an idea than is the glorious past. In this sense, we might make the case that the Protestant Reformation laid the groundwork for later revolutionary thinking by sweeping away the existing conservative, albeit corrupt, order. Even knowing this, the answer is still not “return” because once again that falls into the trap of past utopianism.
So what is the alternative? Conservatism is fundamentally a critique of utopian thinking, explains del Noce. It argues that it is impossible to reach the ideal state where there is perfect harmony between virtue and happiness such that happiness can be reached without any personal suffering or sacrifice. It is founded on the idea of human sinfulness, that is original sin, this notion that each generation is born with just as much a predilection towards wickedness and corruption as every generation which came before it. People are not born good and they are not born blank slates. It denies the idea of human progress in all its forms.
From a societal and political standpoint, conservatism arrives at “the general principle that the duration of a given country’s institutions proves that they exist for a reason, and that modifications and improvements are possible but always within the context of such institutions.” What this means is that conservatism recognizes that at best a society can only ever achieve a partial solution to the problems of mankind. That slowly over time these partial solutions are worked out and stabilized within institutions. Any changes to these should come slowly and from within, worked out carefully over time. In this sense, there is a bias towards the “build something” impulse.
The other piece of this is that both revolutionary and reactionary thinking bias action over being. They place the emphasis on “becoming.” The teaching of original sin, on the other hand, places more weight on who we are, our moral state. Modernism’s focus on doing and becoming is really just the mutation of the heresy of Pelagianism into a new form. With this groundwork laid for us, it is easy to embrace the thrust of Revolution. Conservatism, with “being” as its basis, has a disposition towards a carefully cultivated stasis. It is a bias towards organic imbedded solutions worked out carefully over time.
In this sense, the technological society, with its constant desire to pursue the one best way to do anything, and its need to understand, control and perfect everything, including society, is inherently revolutionary in its impulse with its bias towards “new and improved,” towards becoming over being. We have convinced ourselves that a society must “move forward” or die. All of these are inherently revolutionary in nature. One of the biggest problems that the right faces today, is that in the west we have all become so thoroughly bought into the idea of technical and economic progress that we have little or no framework with which to battle social progressives. In a sense, we are all progressives in some form or another at this point.
This is, in many ways, the crisis of modernity. We are trapped in the philosophies of “becoming.” Either we are trying to “become” into the glorious future, or we wish for the glorious past to “become” once again. The thing we are loath to do is to simply “be,” to accept the metaphysical realities of the world, especially the reality of original sin and realize that we are incapable of solving the problems we face. At best, we can achieve some carefully worked out provisional solutions that can then be curated and passed down as an organic living tradition imbedded in the people of a society from generation to generation.
Can there be institutions so bad that some degree of revolution is the best way to improve them? Not in the expectation of utopia, but in the expectation of something a little less rotten.
What if those institutions were recently imposed by revolutionaries, eg Communism in Poland in 1980, or public health care in Canada in 2023? A common argument by the left is "if you were really a conservative, you wouldn't want to get rid of the CBC (or Canadian Human Rights Act), because it is already here".
I tend to think conservatism is more a temperament than an ideology - a conservative can support revolutionary action in the right circumstances, still not expecting all that much good to come of it.
Thanks for this... it's articulated the things I have felt in my stomach but not had the ability to articulate in the right way. Big love.