The Anti-Political Systems
In this conference, I wish to share some thoughts on revolution and anti-politics. It is certainly difficult to find historical milestones that mark a before and after. I believe that nominalism was the most important moment in destroying the classical concept of political thought and the subsequent replacements with the modern anti-politics. The nominalism of William of Ockham had a destructive effect on the whole of the Christian mindset.
Editor’s Note: This article is taken from a seminar on politics given by Dr. Luis Roldán at the Society of Saint Pius X’s seminary La Reja, Argentina, in August 2011. A second article from the seminar follows.
Nominalism, Father of Individualistic Liberalism
In our everyday life we operate with particulars: Don Juan is sitting down right now on that bench, which is a judgment that is good here and now. But we also use universals, for instance when we say that man is a rational animal; we understand that that judgment is applicable to all men and always. Nominalism is one of the possible answers to the philosophical question: “What value holds these concepts and these universal judgments? This question has been answered in three different ways.
Plato’s answer is known as idealism or exaggerated realism. Plato considered that the universals existed as such in the Olympus, the dwelling place of the idea of horse, of man, of virtue… And the beings we have down here are simply a demiurge’s copies and imitations. Ockham, on the opposite side of the spectrum, states that the universal is a mere name with no existence. What exists is only the individual: Juan, Pedro, this dog, that tree. The answer of the Aristotelian and Thomistic realism is that, although the only being which exists as such is the substance, however the universal is a mental entity based in reality through a process of abstraction. It is a concept in the human mind which points to the essence of the thing.
This loss of the value of the universals has consequences in many areas. First of all, it is going to destroy the classic conception of science. Aristotle stated that science was the study of the universal and necessary by the causes in the real beings. If universals are mere names, science is completely nullified; this is what is going to happen in the modern schools of thought.
But, although less noticed, nominalism also has consequence in the realm of political theory. It deprives all social entities of a real foundation. If the only real being is the individual, the individual is also the only one with rights and duties. In this context, to speak of the rights of the family, for instance, or the corporation, or of the political community, refers to a void. If one were to ask a nominalist: “What is Argentina?” he might say Argentina is the 40 million individuals that live in this country; to make it easier, instead of naming them one by one, we say “the Argentinians” but no such abstract object exists. The logical outcome of this is individualism. A nominalist metaphysics will have its corresponding individualistic ethics, economics, political theory, and philosophy of law.
Political theory in its classical sense ends up disappearing from these authors for two reasons. The first one is because if there is no subject, there is no society. If only the individuals are real, the so-called political action is reduced to the action of individuals. A couple of examples might help us illustrate this. First, you have the heterogeneous group, a group of individuals who are physically close by, but are not doing anything in common, like guests in a hotel. There is a multiplicity of individuals subject to several common rules such as having to pay their stay, keep out of other rooms, refrain from loud music, and so forth. In a heterogeneous group, there is no common perfecting end, and that is precisely what distinguishes a heterogeneous group from a social group.
In a social group there are multiple individuals as well, and they are also in close proximity, but the difference is what they do in common. When the individuals do something in common, and when this something that is done in common is good, it is called the common good. The common good differs from the individual good in two aspects. First of all, the individual good can be obtained by myself: I am sleepy, so I go to sleep. What do I need from others? Nothing, just that they do not make noise and that they do not bother me. And secondly, the individual good is of itself non-transferable. If my friend is very tired, I can not pass on to him some hours of sleep.
The common good, on the other hand, has the two opposite characteristics. It is something that I can or may do only in as much as I am a part of a group; it can only be achieved through a common action. The common good is, of itself, diffusive and transferable to the other members of the group. The best example is that of a party. If I do not have a group of friends coming over to be with me, to participate with me, I am not enjoying a party. Imagine now, on the other hand, a party in which each member pays a certain amount of money, brings their own food and drink and brings their own portable CD player... the essential interaction between the members is missing.
Another good example could be that of a soccer team. I believe that in Argentina one of the last reservoirs of healthy political doctrine is made up of sports commentators. Many times there is a soccer coach who looks for the best midfielders, the best defenders, the best forward/strikers, the best goalie…but when the team goes to the championship, it is defeated. What do the commentators say then? They say the team lost because the other guys were a better team. That is where we see that the social group cannot be reduced to the mere sum of its members. What was essential in the team whose individual members were less than stellar? There was a synergy, the strength of a common action.
The Politics of Individualistic Liberalism
This is something that is missed by Liberalism. Liberalism thinks of society as a big hotel where there are some common duties—to pay taxes, to not hurt others, but there is no common action as such. One of the principal names in Liberalism, Louis Feuerbach, said precisely that a characteristic of the liberal society is that there are no common goals. If there are no common goals, there is no common good, there is no perfective end, and that is why, from the beginning of the modern times, politics are detached from ethics and are considered, as with Machiavelli, merely a technique or an art. For both Plato and Aristotle, pagans as they were, it is clear that the perfection of man is reached through the perfection of politics. Plato’s Republic precisely starts with the question of what constitutes a just man. For Plato, just means perfect. And Socrates’ answer is very clear, we cannot know unless we know what is a just city, because the just polis is what generates just men, and just men live in a just city. In the classical mind, to study the perfection of man as separated from politics is a contradiction in terms. The function of the political life was precisely to offer the citizen the most perfect human good.
Aristotle keeps this classic tradition, which is regrettably lost later in the Hellenistic school of thought, especially in sophistry; for the first time, an ethics system does not aspire to the perfection of man through politics. The classical political tradition will be recuperated with Christianity, and especially St. Thomas Aquinas, until the time of the Renaissance. With the Renaissance, the perfection of man is a personal matter. The political activity, at best, will offer some techniques that will grant man some exterior goods like roads, aqueducts, works of art, and some military strength, but it is no longer a means to the perfection of man.
The logical consequence after this divorce between ethics, religion, and politics is the apparition of the modern state after the so-called French Revolution, the first time in which the State is proclaimed directly atheist, a godless State whose central point is the adoration of man. This debate already existed in Plato’s discussion with Protagoras; Protagoras affirms that the human being is the measure of all things, to which Socrates counters that God is the measure of all things. The modern world reverts to the idea of a godless State, a State whose goal is to secure the rights of the selfish man.
However much man may choose to ignore the laws of politics, he cannot escape its consequences. Every science introduces an idea of necessity in the order of reality, and political science introduces the need for an end. Man can indeed violate the laws of politics, but he will, in turn, have to suffer the consequences. And the result of the liberal state is the destruction of society in the 19th century. This, along with the industrial revolution, will impoverish huge numbers of people reduced to working just for survival. It is in this context that Marxism will emerge, the last phase of the destruction of the classical political theory.
Marxism: Fruit of the Industrial Revolution
Many books and many authors try to explain Marxism as reaction against Liberalism, but this needs to be qualified. Certainly, in many aspects, Marxism is a reaction against certain consequences of Liberalism. But, as Donoso Cortés would say, it is by erecting a gallows to the conclusions while enshrining the principles. Because the fundamental theses of modern thought—the nucleus of the anti-Christian liberal revolution—are not only accepted by Marx and his successors, but indeed are taken to its utmost consequences.
Let us pause for a minute for a sketchy description of Marx’s school of thought. Marx lived in Europe in the mid 19th century and was influenced especially by two currents. First, he was influenced by the German philosophy, namely Hegel, from whom Marx will borrow the idea of dialectics. Hegel is the last great Rationalist thinker who stated that reality does not so much exist as it is permanently in the making. Change is the essence of things. That is why all Hegelian authors reject the notion of a metaphysical nature and affirm that the only true discipline that allows man to know how things are being made and changed is dialectics. Marx integrates these ideas with the French materialism, e.g. Ludwig Feuerbach’s metaphysical materialism. Feuerbach teaches that reality is matter, but this matter has a certain constituent structure. Marx will negate this, stating that we can have a profound knowledge of reality only through dialectic materialism. This dialectic materialism will be, in time, defined by Lenin as the study of “contradiction in the essence of things.” This is a formidable statement! It means that there is no essence.
I remember a Marxist professor of mine who, during the very first class, stated that the first point we needed to agree on was that there is no nature of things. Things do not exist as such, they are being made. They are becoming. If I want to have a vision of reality, I must forget about trying to capture the essence of reality. Now, do you realize the void in these ideas? From now on there is nothing stable, nothing permanent. Change, movement alone is. A new understanding of man arises from this Marxist anti-metaphysics: the dialectic materialism which replaced the classic metaphysics.
What about man? Man too is change. He has no essence. Anthropology really means the history of anthropology, the study of the evolution of man. And what is man? It is matter in its maximum development. There is a point in the dialectic evolution of matter in which it becomes conscious, at which point man appears. And what is man? Man is fundamentally that which he does, his work. In Marxism, the tragedy occurs when man relinquishes some production to the owner of the capital. Man is not; man is his work, his action. Marx states that the important thing is to change the world, not to interpret it as philosophers did in the past. If there is no nature of things, there is a total rejection of the contemplative life. The fundamental core of Marxism is pure praxis.
Marxism as an Individualistic System
Marx’s idea of society is based on nominalism, but takes an interesting turn. The tragedy of nominalism is that it cannot conceive a reality apart from the individual. When Marx intends to respond to the liberal individualism, his only recourse is to make of the political community one huge individual in which the different persons are but an integral part. This is precisely the basis of Marxist totalitarianism in Russia. In the Communist regimes, totalitarianism is not so much the consequence of tyrannical leaders as of the internal logic of the system itself. Instead of elevating the individual, the collectivity is exalted as the new individual. The State does away with each citizen.
All this being said, there is still a profound individualism in Marx’s blueprint. If what is truly human are not the individual persons but the social conduct, the social groups, however, the Marxist anthropology gives way to historic materialism, i.e. the history of the evolution of human society. And how does society evolve? Society evolves because all through history men are divided in two groups, those that hold the goods or private property, and those that do not.
In the first phase, in Antiquity, men were divided between slaves and owners and from this struggle will arise a synthesis, the feudal system. This is very interesting, because in some of his earlier writings and in some parts of Capital, Marx makes an intriguing analysis of the Medieval economy and proves that there was no class struggle in the feudal society. But, he affirms, we cannot go back, because change in society is an imperative of dialectic materialism. Interestingly, Marx recognized the action of the Church against usury and contends that in the history of humanity only the voices of Aristotle and the Church were raised against usury. But we cannot go back, because the dialectic of history is irreversible. The capitalist society appears after the feudal system and again private property divides men into two groups, those that control the means of production (the oligarchy, the bourgeoisie), and the proletariat. And again, there will be a clash between the two, which will lead to the disappearance of private property. This clash must take place, according to Marx, for the private property to disappear.
Marxism as an Economic System
Marx considers two parts in the structure of society as it stands in his time, the 19th century. One part which is truly real, what he calls the economic infrastructure, that is the different means of production and the ownership of goods. The class that holds the means of production will generate another class, which is what Marx calls the superstructure, that is, the state, the laws, politics, police, the armed forces…All these are in place to help keep the infrastructure as it is. This is very important. That is why for Marx the main subject is the political economy, because it addresses the infrastructure. The law, politics, and religion are satellites that do not have an explanation in themselves.
For a classic Marxist, if I were to study the law, it would only make sense when I understand the economy; up until then I would be addressing the fringes, purely the superstructure. Not until one understands the infrastructure can one truly understand the issue. This showcases the methodology of the classic Marxist action. Marx and his followers opposed the 19th century socialists who wanted to form political parties with the intent to change the laws by obtaining parliamentary seats. Marx judged meaningless this effort to change the unimportant superstructure. The only meaningful change comes about by moving the masses by means of revolutionary strikes to collapse the infrastructure; once that has been achieved, the superstructure will collapse by itself. As with a building, it is more effective to tear it down by placing a charge than to attempt it with an ax.
After this phase, Marx contends, there will be a time when the workers’ party will be in power, the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, which will eliminate the remains of the economic infrastructure. Now, an interesting point Marx makes is that once the private property is eliminated, there will no longer be a need for the state. Marx holds a profound disdain for politics, the consequence of the original sin of private property. Once the dichotomy owner/slave, owner/worker is eliminated, politics is meaningless. He says so specifically in his writings; the “State” will end up in a museum, right along with the plow used by our ancestors, for future generations to see how it used to be.
A Concluding Observation
This is very interesting because all of Marx’s political forecasts turned out wrong. For instance, Marx thought the conditions in England, being the most developed industrial society at the time, would pave the way to Communism. Instead, Communism triumphs in Russia, where none of the conditions Marx anticipated were present. Donoso Cortés, on the other hand, foresaw that Communism would take hold in Russia.
And yet, Marxism became the predominant political theory even long after Marx’s death. Curiously enough, the Russian attempt to organize society according to the dictates of Marxism from 1917 to the 90’s failed spectacularly. And note that the so-called fall of the Berlin Wall did not take place because of the war, an epidemic, etc., but because of a sort of implosion. To try to establish a social order that violates systematically the natural laws of politics is something that can be done for a while, but will not last forever. That is the reason for the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, more remarkable is the fact that Marxism continues to be one of the strongest political ideologies, 20 years after the fall of Communism. How is this possible? The study of Gramsci in our second section will give some answers to this paradox.
Luis Roldán is a lawyer and teaches Law at the UCA, Catholic University of Argentina (Buenos Aires).