Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism

The nineteenth-century Spanish reactionary Juan Donoso Cortes occupies an intriguing place
in the history of Reaction. His critique of liberalism is distinctly theological; he grounds all his social principles in Christian doctrine: the nature of the Trinity, its manifestations in creation, mankind’s collective Fall, and its collective redemption. In some ways, he anticipates the Christian communitarians and Radical Orthodoxy schools of our own time. Unlike them, he was tied to an actual, living traditional society, and he defends kings, hereditary aristocracies, Catholic establishment, and many other things that would cause today’s communitarians to faint from fear.

Throne & Altar reader William McEnaney has kindly sent me a copy of Dononso’s main work, his Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism. Bill works with Preserving Christian Publications, a small business that sells out-of-print pre-conciliar Catholic books. I would be pleased for such ventures to flourish and so am happy to offer this bit of free advertising.  What follows will be an exploration of one key theme in Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism.

Writing in 1851, Donoso saw the great issue of his age as an ultimately theological battle between Catholicism and socialism. Catholicism had dignified both authority and obedience by locating the former’s source in God. Even the legitimate authority of fathers (as opposed to their mere primacy of age and power) is explicable primarily through the Trinitarian relation it reflects. Alongside the family and state, Catholicism fosters a vast network of associations, each embodying it its own way the fundamental law of unity-in-diversity rooted in the Trinitarian heart of Being. Socialism would destroy all of this, reducing the order of mankind to a vast and unitary yet illegitimate statist tyranny.

In the twentieth century, all of this would be explained in terms of the supposed Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. As you’ve often heard the story, the Left basically owns solidarity, and Catholics criticize Leftists only for neglecting the second principle of subsidiarity, a vague council to–all other things being equal–favor small and local agency. This is inadequate for a number of reasons.  Donoso gets to the real heart of the matter. What’s wrong with socialism is not that it is solidarity unchecked; socialism is solidarity denied, misunderstood, reduced to a shadow of its true self. The socialist believes in solidarity too little, rather than too much.

This is because the socialist denies original sin. Donoso of course agrees with the standard conservative complaint that socialists error in ignoring innate human depravity. However, the important point is not that socialists won’t recognize the effects of original sin in man. The important point is that they won’t recognize that it could be just and proper for God to punish all of us for the sin of Adam. They will not admit that we bear responsibility for our ancestors, and yet this simply is the heart of solidarity.  Shared responsibility is the essence and core experience of all social unity.  Donoso even carries this to the level of each individual, saying we would have no sense of ourselves as unitary beings persisting through time without the sense of responsibility for our past acts.

From inherited responsibility comes the family, aristocratic lines, particular nations, and the unity of mankind in Adam–each social unity passing on its stock of glory and guilt.  Long before the ascendancy of international communism, Dononso was warning that socialism would end up making war on the existence of distinct nations. The socialists foolishly reject the principle of solidarity at its most obvious and direct level (the family, associations, ethnicities), while claiming to retain it at the level of mankind as a whole. Donoso thinks they mangle the principle even there, as they must because the socialist does not recognize free will, sin, or individual responsibility. They therefore must see the social organism itself as the sole bearer of responsibility.

It is interesting that Donoso rejects this organic, corporate notion of responsibility, since such ideas have long been part of anti-liberal thought.  Corporate responsibility is how I naturally understand collective responsibility.  Donoso himself recognizes the corporate character of families, arguing that it is families rather than individuals that can fittingly own land.  However, he thinks corporate responsibility reduces individuals to components of the social organism without their own moral agency.  Responsibility is collective in that I inherit it from past generations (Adam’s fall along with the particular glories and shames of my own family, nation, profession, etc) and in that my own acts echo through all future generations. Such, he believes, is the true unity of mankind and the awesome agency of each individual. And yet he insists that this collective responsibility inheres in each of us as individuals. (That is, not “humanity, of which I am a part, bears Adam’s guilt” but “I bear Adam’s guilt”.)

Men have always had some idea of collective responsibility, as the very existence of their institutions attests. We also see it, according to Donoso, in the widespread practice of animal and human sacrifice. In these practices he sees mankind responding to a valid intuition about collective guilt and atonement, but human sacrifice he thinks comes from forgetting the aspirational, symbolic aspect of pre-Christian offerings, the acknowledgement that man’s own sacrifices fail to achieve this atonement but only point toward that time when God Himself would provide the perfect victim to accomplish our redemption.

Like other great works of the counter-revolutionary era, Donoso’s work is primarily valuable for laying out counter-Enlightenment principles for which conservatives fight rather than in convincingly arguing for their truth. As a practitioner of “conservative dogmatics” I find this a valuable service.  However, the arguments in places certainly do need work.  For example, much of his argument for the transmission of original sin (a key point of his, as we’ve seen) seems to rest on a pseudo-Lamarckian belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which even if it were still scientifically credible would not obviously apply to the spiritual level of original grace and sin. Again, the idea–found in many Western Christian writers and also here–of human nature being originally contained in Adam and corrupted for all of us is arresting but difficult to understand.   What do we mean by “human nature”?  If it is an abstract essence or a Platonic Form, then Adam would be as distinct from it as any of us, and it could in no way suffer the vicissitudes of time and corruption.  And yet when I speak of “mankind” I do mean something more concrete than an essence and yet more unitary than a statistical statement about aggregates of individuals. “Mankind lives on Earth” is true even if there are beings identical to us on another planet, because mankind is not just a kind but a distinct lineage.

Understanding original sin is, of course, a task for Christianity as a whole and not just the philosophers of Reaction, but it is a fact that political philosophers when they confront their most fundamental issues must grapple with theological questions.  This is, in fact, the observation with which Donoso begins his book.

One Response

  1. […] Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism by Juan Donoso Cortes […]

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