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Never Been Tried?

In Volume 2 of his Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recalls how he and his fellow prisoners would amuse themselves by quizzing Marxist scholars who ended up alongside them in the Soviet labor camps. These professors of the Communist Academy could look directly at the ravages of Stalinist oppression, at the concentration camps in which they themselves were imprisoned, and insist that neither Stalin nor the Party were to blame.

“Look over there: how poverty-stricken our villages are,” Solzhenitsyn would say. “An inheritance from the Tsarist regime,” the true believer would reply. The impoverished countryside was “uncharacteristic”; food shortages and famine were “old wives’ tales”; and if the farmers were starving, well, “have you looked in all their ovens?”

Anyone who has debated a really committed Marxist will recognize this sort of unflappable devotion. “Impenetrability, that was their chief trait!” writes Solzhenitsyn. In the West, of course, entire university departments are devoted to insulating Marxism against the history of its own failure. Confronted with the manifold atrocities of Communist regimes worldwide, the diehard apologist will retort serenely that sabotage, or ideological impurity, or your lying eyes, are really at fault. True Marxism has never been tried.

In The Problem of Atheism (Il problema dell’ateismo), the great Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce shows that true Marxism has, in fact, been tried. He was well-positioned to make the case. While a young scholar in Turin, Del Noce got to see Marxism in its most attractive possible light, as an alternative to the rising Fascist regime. He could have been forgiven for concluding, as the political prisoner Antonio Gramsci did, that workers’ uprisings in the city represented the world’s great hope of defeating totalitarianism.

Instead, Del Noce came to believe that Marxism just was totalitarianism, because it just was atheism, in its purest and most unadulterated form. Throughout his life he would argue, with peerless foresight, that Marxism’s economic theory was inseparable from its historicist materialism; that it could not be softened or accommodated by more moderate systems of thought; and that it would naturally trend toward a brittle and purposeless form of despotism.

Factually Wrong, Morally Certain

The essays in The Problem of Atheism show Del Noce working out these ideas during the decades after the Second World War. There are six of them altogether, prefaced by a lengthy later work, “The Concept of Atheism and the History of Philosophy as a Problem” (1964).

In the earliest essay, “Marx’s ‘Non-Philosophy’ and Communism” (1946), Del Noce proposes that Marxism “not only arises but also reaches its full expression as a surpassing of philosophy.” In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx famously declared that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Many efforts have been made to reassure us that Marx only meant for activism to arise out of reason and reflection, not to replace it: in The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, for instance, celebrity philosopher Cornel West writes that Marx’s call to action “was not a rejection of rational dialogue, discourse, or discussion, nor is it a call to blind activism.” This is a classic example of a well-meaning fellow traveler trying to save Marx from himself.

For in the manuscripts that became The German Ideology (various later rearrangements of the material notwithstanding), Marx and Engels state quite plainly that a good materialist historian “does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice.” Activism is not simply the outcome of Marx’s thought, but the essence of Marxism itself: what Del Noce calls “a surpassing of philosophy” means flipping reason on its head, using political outcomes to evaluate the strength of ideas rather than vice versa. As Marx wrote in the Theses, “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question.” True thoughts are not those that hold together in the abstract, but those that change the world.

Yet how can we know we are changing the world for the better, if not through some true interpretation of moral absolutes? The committed Marxist cannot acknowledge any such absolutes, or any other enduring standard of supernatural truth. There exists for him only the bare facts of things as they are, judged in light of his own personal convictions.

Judged—and found wanting. And so, writes Del Noce, “reality is reduced to an object, it becomes real in my action, as the obstacle that I project in front of me in order to overcome it. Therefore, activism implies a form of lived solipsism.” When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complained that her critics were “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right,” she was illustrating the nature of Marxism perfectly: it’s my virtue, not your facts, that count.

Soviet authoritarianism was therefore not a perversion of Marx’s work but its consummation, the forceful imposition of a few men’s utopian vision onto the insufficiently enlightened masses. Already in 1918, when kulak farmers protested the seizure of their food during a famine, Lenin ordered 100 of them hanged and instructed his subordinates: “find tougher people.” For the true revolutionary, human nature’s stubborn resistance to “progress” is just a passing delusion, to be overcome with greater force and more passionate denial.

If man is a product purely of his social circumstances, then a vigorous enough effort to change those circumstances will surely force the crooked timber of humanity to run straight. This one catastrophically mistaken idea informed the worst horrors of Soviet tyranny no less than the well-intentioned failures of Progressive social policy. “Those who argue that social and moral reform is impossible on the ground that the Old Adam of human nature remains forever the same, attribute however to native activities the permanence and inertia that in truth belong only to acquired customs,” wrote the progressive theorist of education John Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct. Yet as Myron Magnet heartbreakingly chronicled in The Dream and the Nightmare, this modern Pelagianism—the heresy that denies original sin—has had nothing but disastrous consequences for those unfortunates whom it has tried to “perfect.” 

And so in a short but pivotal essay, “Marxism and the Qualitative Leap” (1948), Del Noce claims that Marxism necessarily entails viewing the whole world, including one’s fellow man, as raw matter subject to mechanical manipulation. The reduction of everything to material science, so evident in our modern bureaucracies, was baked in from the start: “When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality.” Thus Christianity, which defines the world in terms of a transcendent moral as well as a physical order, can never incorporate Marxism by diluted half-measures as a sort of social justice program.

Plenty of churches have tried, though. The effort usually begins with chipper slogans about equality for all, and ends by smothering the Gospel in toxic partisan politics. The sight of BLM and trans-pride flags draped over crucifixes during the summer of 2020 would not have surprised Del Noce. He understood that accommodating Marxist ideology in even a small degree meant accepting the logic of revolution, which makes a point of overturning every orthodoxy in the name of change for its own sake. The identitarian Marxism of the New Left, no less than old-school socioeconomic Marxism, necessarily involves denying every permanent truth—which is to say, denying God.

This is the overarching point of “Notes on Western Irreligion” (1963) and “Reflections on the Atheistic Option” (1961), two essays in which the “problem of atheism” really comes to the fore. True and total atheism of the Marxist variety does not simply ask “is there a God?” and answer in the negative. Instead, Del Noce writes, full atheism consists in occluding the question from view altogether: “for today’s irreligion…there is no reason to raise the question of God because the affirmation of his existence is logically meaningless.”

For the Church and the West to survive, there can be no “concessions” to Marxism—only a stark refutation of it, rooted in the eternal truths that Marxism has erased from view.

Forgetting God

Hence Del Noce’s prescient observation that the West, in laboring to defeat Marxism, would eventually come to accept its major premise. By boasting that American superiority to Russia was evident in superior material output rather than in commitment to higher truths, American anti-Communists implicitly granted that physical wealth, and not spiritual depth, makes the measure of a society.

When Solzhenitsyn told a London audience in 1983 that “men have forgotten God,” he was confirming the fulfillment of Del Noce’s predictions: the “affluent society” had made it possible for Westerners to live comfortably without taking ownership of the moral and religious principles that underpinned their civilization. As both Solzhenitsyn and Del Noce saw, this creeping indifference to matters of faith represented not the defeat of Marxism, but the conditions for its eventual victory.

So it is that America was left vulnerable to the “long march through the institutions” that Gramsci envisioned and activist Rudi Dutschke helped put into practice. Hollowed out by empty consumerism and high on the supply of its own material abundance, American society would be powerless to defend itself against the vigor and conviction of a new Marxist vanguard. As Del Noce later put it, “the socialist exigence takes priority over the liberal.” The truth of this observation is painfully evident today, as ostensibly liberal institutions rush to impose woke speech codes and loyalty oaths upon their membership.

The final two essays in The Problem of Atheism offer a philosophical and political summation of the West’s current crisis. In “The Pascal Problem and Contemporary Atheism” (1964), Del Noce undertakes a wholesale reinterpretation of modern intellectual history, arguing that the secularizing train of thought which leads to Marx can be counterbalanced by another, more expressly Christian tradition. This tradition stretches back to Saint Augustine and carries on through Blaise Pascal to other, less familiar thinkers such as the French Catholic Nicolas Malebranche and the Italian jurist Giambattista Vico. Drawing on this tradition, Del Noce proposes “that the knowing of God, by a vision of an a priori intuition, is the condition that makes possible any knowledge.” This basic premise, known as “Ontologism,” is Del Noce’s Christian alternative to materialism and perpetual revolution.

Finally, in “Political Theism and Atheism” (1962), Del Noce outlines how a religious moral outlook can translate into a “non-perfectist” political vision, one which acknowledges the twin realities of fallen human nature and absolute divine truth. Like Edmund Burke before him, Del Noce rejects the “conception that sees human reality as really or absolutely transformable with respect to what concerns moral good or evil,” proposing instead a prudential movement toward the good in every age: “at every time in history there is the same possibility for evil, and the task of the politician is to minimize it.”

For the Church and the West to survive, there can be no “concessions” to Marxism—only a stark refutation of it, rooted in the eternal truths that Marxism has erased from view. For the Marxist, revolutionary struggle determines what is good in the moment, irrespective of any fabricated absolutes. For the Ontologist, exactly the opposite is true: unchanging verities, which we grasp in our imperfect but very real communion with God, set the standard that should determine all our actions in each new era.

Speaking Plainly

Though Del Noce regarded The Problem of Atheism as the jewel of his career, and though it has enjoyed ongoing popularity in Italy, this is the first time it has been available in English. Professor Carlo Lancellotti of the City University of New York has done an admirable job translating it, and altogether it makes for a valuable contribution to Anglophone letters. Some of Del Noce’s claims are open to dispute—as for instance in “Marx’s ‘Non-Philosophy,’” where he claims that Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels misunderstood the nature of Marxism. Though this belief is still widespread, Thomas Sowell argues quite forcefully in Marxism that Marx and Engels understood each other perfectly. But those sorts of issues don’t detract from the power of Del Noce’s overall insights, which is undeniable.

One thing does detract, however: Del Noce’s writing is nigh-on impenetrable. Almost every sentence is thickly choked with abstractions. Promising introductory clauses regularly dissolve into strings of arcane references that are rarely, if ever, explained. A representative sentence from “Political Theism” reads: “The historicist sublation of Hegel did not take place because the ‘non-definitiveness of truth’ in thought was just a cover to assert the definitiveness of a determined historical reality, which, in turn, could not find awareness of itself except in this theoretical affirmation of non-definitiveness.” That’s pretty grim, and it’s not the translator’s fault.

Nor can even advanced readers be expected to approach the book having already learned the relevant ingroup lexicon. True, some philosophical concepts are original enough that an obscure coinage—“Ontologism,” say—can be convenient. But no argument is so world-breakingly subtle that it resists clear encapsulation in language altogether. Jargon piled on jargon becomes not a shorthand but a crutch, excusing the author from having to nail down in plain terms what he means to say. Of course, Del Noce is wrestling with his fellow continental philosophers, precious few of whom are known for their sparkling lucidity—Marx himself least of all. But that is all the more reason why Del Noce’s arguments would have been more powerful by comparison if they had been less garbled.

Professor Lancellotti does his best to clear things up in his introduction, where he reprints a rather endearing story of how Nicola Matteucci, Del Noce’s editor, asked him for a brief preface to the essays compiled in The Problem of Atheism. “The wait lasted over a year,” said Matteucci, “until we finally forced him to wrap things up. He showed up, apologizing, with a manuscript that was almost as long as the book.”

Del Noce repeatedly pleads with us to understand that it had to be this way, that the diffuse structure of his work was “obligatory” to illustrate the unfolding process of his thought over time. But the whole thing—the long delays, the meandering argumentation, the frantic production of a yet-more voluminous introduction that raises more questions than it answers—looks not so much “obligatory” as undisciplined. Good philosophy is no excuse for bad prose, though the former can be so intimidating that it makes laymen afraid to point out the latter. The defect is all the more exasperating because Del Noce is saying something so desperately important that it shouldn’t be a chore to decipher every sentence.

Lancellotti saves the day, though, by offering a helpful syllabus in which he effectively recommends reading the book out of order, grouping passages according to subject and giving coherence to the whole. One wonders why Del Noce didn’t spend more time doing that kind of restructuring himself, and less time procrastinating on his introduction. But even so, it is a testament to the man’s brilliance that his ideas remain worth the painful effort of banging one’s head against them. His work deserves a wider readership in America, which hopefully it will now receive.

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