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Revolution and Reaction by Jonathan Culbreath

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Essay

Revolution and Reaction

“Men and Animals Struggling Against Death & Father Time,” 28.2 x 44.1 cm oil on canvas by David Vinckboons (1576-1632), located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

Photo: Public Domain.

The crisis of the present era is the same for both the revolutionary and the reactionary. Ours is a singularly ahistorical civilization, in two senses: we no longer comprehend, appreciate, or assimilate our past, nor do we dare to march into an unknown future. In the words of Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism, “a denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.” 

Fukuyama’s infamous diagnosis that we have reached “the end of history”—which he finds in the prevailing sense that “there is no alternative” to the capitalist world order—forces us to question all political efforts made up to this point. Revolution has failed to reboot history and bring about the new world order of the future.  On the other hand, contemporary political conservatism has failed to actually conserve anything but the latest forms of liberal dysfunction—a failure that signals the triumph of liberalism over the past. 

The past has been forgotten, and the future has been cancelled. Are there any alternatives, or are we doomed to a new dark age?

There is a path forward, but it is a narrow and tricky one that winds along the knife-edge between revolution and reaction. The only way to reboot history and truly advance into the future is to assimilate the past into the present, to bring the vast and immeasurable weight of human tradition to bear upon a stagnant and ahistorical present. This cannot but have the startling—and indeed revolutionary—effect of impelling us back into history again. Those who desire revolution must in some way become reactionaries. Only a recovery of the past, of the universal human tradition and its great civilizational memory, can reignite the flame of progress extinguished by late modernity.

Conversely, those who desire to preserve the great traditions of humanity must, in some sense, become revolutionaries. The traditionalist must desire to break the iron bars that imprison contemporary civilization in this ahistorical and inhuman (or all-too-human) condition. A war must be waged to preserve the universal heritage of mankind against those forces of modern barbarism which would rob us of it. The traditionalist must conjure up within himself the deep-seated impulse to destroy, and then to build anew, precisely in order to preserve. Tradition can only be brought back to life on the wings of revolutionary progress.

In a certain inchoate way, we can see shadows of this convergence of the reactionary and revolutionary mindsets in the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, as exemplified by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. To be sure, Adorno and Horkheimer were revolutionaries of the Left, who were not only horrified by the extremism of fascism but even intended the “destruction” of Western Civilization as a whole, which they saw as falling inevitably towards the barbarism of fascism. For these men, however, the deeper purpose of such destruction was preservation: the preservation of the greatest achievements of that civilization from the barbarity of modernism. While their desire for destruction is revolutionary, there is something deeply reactionary in their hatred for modernity and their desire to protect an immemorial human heritage from its barbarism.

The heterodox socialist Georges Sorel wrote in Reflections on Violence that there is something conservative at the heart of every true revolution, and that according to Marxism itself, the task of socialist revolution was to conserve the great achievements of capitalism itself, freed from the capitalist shell in which they were trapped. He wrote, “Capitalism creates: the heritage that socialism will receive, the men who will suppress the present regime, and the means of bringing about this destruction;—at the same time, this destruction preserves the results obtained in production.” Sorel’s concept of revolutionary proletarian violence conceals at its core a deeply traditionalist sentiment, not unlike Adorno and Horkheimer’s desire to save the West from its own barbarism. Thus Sorel writes: 

Proletarian violence, carried on as a pure and simple manifestation of the sentiment of class struggle, appears thus as a very fine and heroic thing; it is at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization; it is not perhaps the most appropriate method of obtaining immediate material advantages, but it may save the world from barbarism. . . Let us salute the revolutionaries as the Greeks saluted the Spartan heroes who defended Thermopylae and helped preserve civilization in the ancient world. 

The destructive impulse of both the reactionary and the revolutionary is in fact the urge to struggle against the ultimate destruction, as the life of an individual animal struggles against death, and as the life of a whole species requires death in its very struggle against total extinction. Both exemplify an elemental law of nature: death is required even for the perpetuation of life itself.

This is perhaps the upshot of Joseph de Maistre’s famous quotation from the St. Petersburg Dialogues:

In the whole vast dome of living nature there reigns an open violence. A kind of prescriptive fury which arms all the creatures to their common doom: as soon as you leave the inanimate kingdom you find the decree of violent death inscribed on the very frontiers of life. You feel it already in the vegetable kingdom: from the great catalpa to the humblest herb, how many plants die and how many are killed; but, from the moment you enter the animal kingdom, this law is suddenly in the most dreadful evidence. A Power, a violence, at once hidden and palpable … has in each species appointed a certain number of animals to devour the others. … And who [in this general carnage] exterminates him who will exterminate all others? Himself. It is man who is charged with the slaughter of man. … The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.

The open violence of nature is ordered ultimately to the death of death itself, a reference to St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The arch-traditionalist knows that a certain destruction must be wrought precisely in order to preserve what is permanent and universal in human civilization, but in this, he is little different from the revolutionary, who knows that a destruction must be wrought in order to restore man to his unalienated self.

In a way, this perspective is not a moral one—not in the sense that it is immoral, but in the sense that what Maistre is describing is a natural law of history that works in and through, but beyond, the moral choices of human beings, independent of whatever judgment the moralist might make about them. This is not to discount moral science as such, but only to observe that history is full of tragedy, a tragedy that works towards greater redemption. 

Thus, at its root, it is a deeply Christian observation. The laws of history are summed up in the death of Jesus Christ, the destruction of his human body, the taking of his life in the most violent manner, all for the sake of preserving the original prelapsarian purity of human life. The violence of Christ’s death can be described in a manner that transcends morality: while Christ was certainly the victim of human sin (both the sins of the human race and the sins of those directly responsible for killing him), the act by which he died was also his act, a pure and sinless act, yet still a violent act in the sense that it was an act of self-immolation. Salvation history evinces the same laws, raised to a supernatural degree, which Maistre attributes to history as such: “The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar upon which all that is living must be sacrificed…”

The Catholic philosopher Charles DeKoninck makes essentially the same observation in the context of natural philosophy. In a passage where he defends the idea of evolution, he suggests that the natural world everywhere makes use of death in order to attain the highest stage of life: human life. His words may also be applied to human history as such, which everywhere displays death as a part of the process to transcend the limits of human nature, often with tragic effects, and sometimes—most completely with the death of Jesus Christ—with truly redemptive effect. This principle explains simultaneously the existence of totalitarian regimes as failed attempts to transcend human nature at great cost to many human lives, and the existence of truly redemptive “transhumanism” in the case of true religion, i.e. Christianity. In an essay called “The Cosmos,” DeKoninck writes:

Evolution is a struggle against death, by means of death if necessary.

Our entire universe is troubled by a pitiless desire for immortality, a cosmic desire which takes on terrible proportions. The terrible thing essential to evolution is death. Here below, generation always involves corruption. Elementary living things which multiply by dividing die in this generation. The unicellular living thing does not divide into two parts: it gives birth to two new individuals, and their birth is its death. The very fight to preserve life already involves death.

The maintenance of life is accomplished thanks to death. It is necessary for the animal to be nourished by organic substances. The biosphere eats itself in order to grow; it must destroy itself to the degree that it enriches itself. Tragedy is essential to cosmic life. The desire to reach man (and in humanity the desire to attain always higher cultural levels) knows no pity. To the degree that life becomes more noble and more intense in organization, death becomes more terrible and the fear of death takes on the most frightening proportions. 

When applied to the actual course of human history, it is not possible to say whether this principle is that of revolution or tradition. In “The Death Wish in the Contemporary West,” the philosopher James Chastek reiterated this same Thomistic principle in its historical-political context. According to Chastek, the tendency of history towards constant, repetitive revolutionary destruction is what explains the dystopian fears (or desires disguised as fears) commonly entertained by partisans of both the Left and Right. 

At the root of such fears is an inextinguishable desire for death—and for what may come after death. The “death-wish” is really not peculiar to the contemporary West, but is at the metaphysical root of all time-bound existence, which requires constant change and upheaval in order to manifest through visible and finite creatures the invisible and eternal God. (The Platonism of this thought is also evident: the many are but the manifestation of the One.) In the words of Pater Edmund Waldstein, Chastek gives the impression of “a revolutionary in search of a revolution.” Yet one may say that at the heart of this philosophy there is also a deeper desire for what is timeless, permanent, and eternal—after all, the multitude of creatures are a reflection of the eternal God, the expressions within history of an eternal Idea. As such, this philosophy is as conservative as it is revolutionary.

Obviously, the decrepitude and stagnation of the modern West is disappointing. After decades of failed progress and revolution, as well as discontinuity and monotonous change, it is no wonder that so many old reactionaries and revolutionaries seem to live in a perpetual state of pessimism. Both have beheld their great ideals collapse into ash, abandoned to the mercies of a capitalism that seems to have erased history altogether, deleting the past and cancelling the future. At the same time, there has rarely been a more exciting time for those who identify politically and ideologically with neither the Left nor the Right. As Vincent Garton wrote in his significant essay titled “Catholicism and the Gravity of Horror,” the defining characteristic of our age is that “for progressives as much as conservatives, the future comes to be constituted by the recovery of historical projects prematurely foreclosed.” 

Now is the time for a new intellectual alliance. While a new beginning to history might yet be far off, a new way of thinking is within reach.

Jonathan Culbreath is a writer and independent researcher currently living in Colorado. He is also an assistant editor at The Josias, a site dedicated to the recovery of Catholic Social Teaching. He may be followed on Twitter at @maestrojmc.

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