Revolution and Reaction

A recent tweet by Anton Jaeger, describing the historical project of Frankfurt Marxists like Adorno and Horkheimer, helped me to better formulate a thought which I’ve been entertaining for a while: that we are reaching a juncture in history where there is no longer a meaningful difference between being a revolutionary and being a reactionary. Adorno and Horkheimer were assuredly revolutionaries and men of the Left, who were not only horrified by the reactionary extremism of fascism, but even intended the “destruction” of Western Civilization — but, as Jaeger reminds us, for the purposes of preserving its greatest achievements, and so protecting those achievements from the West’s long decline into barbarism. Accordingly, while there is something decidedly revolutionary in their destructive proclivities, there is also something deeply reactionary as well in their hatred for modernity and its barbarism.

The heterodox socialist Georges Sorel once wrote in Reflections on Violence that there is something deeply conservative at the heart of every authentic revolution, and that the task of socialist revolution — according to the Marxist concept — was even to conserve the great achievements of capitalism itself, but freed from the capitalist shell in which they were contrived. “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.” (Reflections on Violence, 73.) Indeed, Sorel’s concept of revolutionary proletarian violence appears to conceal at its core a deeply conservative or traditionalist concern, not unlike that of Adorno and Horkheimer’s concern to save the West from its own barbarism: “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.” (85) “Let us salute the revolutionaries as the Greeks saluted the Spartan heroes who defended Thermopylae and helped preserve civilization in the ancient world.” (86)

This is a theme which is evident not only in the name of this blog but also in the slogan which serves as the subtitle for the “integralist” website I help manage, The Josias: Non declinavit ad dextram sive ad sinistram.” The decrepitude of our political situation in the modern West is surely disappointing from a certain perspective; yet from another perspective, there has rarely been a more exciting time for thinkers (like myself) who identify with neither the political Left nor the political Right. After decades of failed attempts at progress and revolution, it appears that there are no other alternatives except those which, in a uniquely contradictory or paradoxical “turning of the tables,” appear to be radically traditionalist and reactionary every bit as much as they are progressive and revolutionary.

Indeed, the sense that “there are no alternatives” to the existing capitalist order — the Fukuyamaist sense that we are indeed living in the end of history — forces us to question all heretofore historically-defined political possibilities. Revolution as it has been attempted up to now is no longer a viable option, and the only way to re-boot history (so to speak) and truly make advances in progress is to assimilate the past into the present, i.e. to bring the vast knowledge bequeathed to us by human tradition to bear upon a stagnant and thus ahistorical present. This cannot but have the startlingly revolutionary effect of impelling us back into history again. They who desire revolution must in some way become reactionaries, or at least traditionalists.

Conversely, they who desire truly to preserve the universal human tradition must, in some sense, become revolutionaries. The problem with our present moment for both the revolutionary and the reactionary is the same: this is a singularly ahistorical moment, in which Western Man neither probes the depths of his glorious past nor spurs onward into an abundant future. 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, in the spirit of a grand crusade, for the defense of the universal heritage of mankind against those forces of modern barbarism which would rob the human race of that heritage. The traditionalist must conjure up within himself the deep-seated impulse to destroy in order to preserve.

Of course, what I call here the “destructive impulse” is in reality the impulse to struggle against the ultimate destruction, not only as the life of an individual animal struggles against death, but even as the life of a whole species requires death in its very struggle against total extinction. This, perhaps, is the upshot of Joseph de Maistre’s famous quotation:

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 St. Petersburg Dialogues)

The open violence of nature is only ordered ultimately to the death of the death — a reference to St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Death, thou shalt die! The arch-traditionalist knows that a certain destruction must be wrought precisely in order to preserve human civilization.

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 something like a natural law of history that works in and through, but beyond, the moral choices of human beings, independent of what 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 toward a 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 — but for the sake of preserving the original pre-lapsarian purity of human life. The violence of Christ’s death can similarly 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 thus 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 Thomist philosopher Charles DeKoninck, whom I have cited many times on this blog, makes essentially the same observation in the context of natural philosophy, i.e. the science of the cosmos. 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 often — or only once, with the death of Jesus Christ — with truly redemptive effect. Thus, this principle simultaneously explains 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. 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.

“The Cosmos,” p.301, The Writings of Charles DeKoninck, Vol. I.

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 an old blogpost from 2011 titled The Death Wish in the Contemporary West — which Pater Edmund Waldstein named the best blogpost of all time — 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 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 Pater Edmund’s words, Chastek gives the impression of “a revolutionary in search of a revolution”; yet one may say that at the heart of this philosophy is a much deeper desire for what is timeless, permanent, and eternal — the multitude of creatures are a reflection of the eternal God. As such, it is as traditionalist or conservative as it is revolutionary.

To return to the Christian heart of this idea, it does not seem like a stretch to claim that Christ’s self-immolation was simultaneously an act of preserving a great tradition — not just a human tradition, but the divine tradition of prelapsarian life — and an act of revolution. By Christ’s revolutionary act, the dominion of Satan was overthrown, the powers of death were cast down. The forces which imprisoned humanity in his wretchedness, and prevented him from making the great steps of moral and spiritual progress required by his supernatural destiny — these forces were shattered by violence of Christ. Further still, these forces are shattered by the violence of Christ’s disciples, the Church militant, who share in his defeat of death itself, the destruction of the empire of Satan, by their participation in Christ’s act of self-immolation on the Cross. Death has become the means to life for all Christians, the death of their own demonic selves, the destruction of the demonic tyranny of which they were formerly both helpless slaves and willing citizens.

Vincent Garton, commenting on the writings of Ludwig Derleth, has drawn attention to the forgotten role that total obedience has necessarily played in all revolutions, leading many revolutionaries on a path towards the most uncompromising and intransigent form of reactionary traditionalism, as exemplified by Roman Catholicism. Garton writes: “The revolutionary function of discipline and obedience is one of the most obvious missing pieces of liberal politics, which organises itself through an atomic and aimless freedom. It finds its archetype—as leftist thinkers from Sorel to Gramsci have equally suggested—in the political form of the Church. Derleth appears as perhaps the purest and most direct distillation of this conceptual identity.” The total obedience which the Christian owes to the divine despotism of Christ, mediated through the political form of the Church (embodied in its hierarchy), is the same obedience by which the Christian partakes of Christ’s revolutionary destruction of the regime of death, and thereby rediscovers and preserves the original grace of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. In the words of Derleth (in Garton’s translation):

Christus Imperator Maximus, on whom the eyes of countless peoples are fixed.

I have come in power not to be served, but to serve.

I have no concern for myself, I have an army to maintain.

Mine are the dockyards and the ships, the idle warriors in the camps, the falling soldiers and even the final outpost, languishing in the shifting sands of the desert.

Come to me all you who attain in desire to the ether-pure heights that only the eagles can reach, I give you the feeling of power in human need, that your marrow and veins may glow with new fortune.

To glance at unreason makes you miserable. Obedience gives you sight. Meaning and purpose is not in this world, but in my strategy.

I am no god of war, but war itself.

Proklamationen (1919)

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