The nature of solidarity: Donoso Cortes vs. the socialists

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.

24 thoughts on “The nature of solidarity: Donoso Cortes vs. the socialists

  1. Cortes makes a clear distinction between profound nature of wisdom and the sterility of mere intellectualism, between actual truth and mere genius. This distinction shows how the denial of God and the transcendent does not lead to “enlightenment” any more than the study of the mere mechanics behind the universe will lead to understanding the great questions of why we are here in the first place. On a political level, the confusion of genius for truth has resulted in the bloodbaths of the twentieth century.

  2. Pingback: The nature of solidarity: Dononso Cortes vs. the socialists | Reaction Times

  3. “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.”

    It has always been my theory that the Left is the political manifestation of Manicheanism, a neo-Platonic heresy, which erupted periodically in the past, e.g., the Cathars, and which holds absolute sway in the secular realm today with the apparent adoption of Kantian metaphysics, ethnics, etc.

    19th Cent. Socialism stopped at the level of homo sapiens. Today, others theorise further.

    This is a culture of death, and hatred of that which is. For that culture, the fact that we are divided by sex, race, family, etc., is a corruption of the One.

    • Thanks, Alat. I’ve fixed it.

      Bill and everybody at the Orthosphere: I’m so, so sorry. I’ve just humiliated myself and no doubt caused all of you discomfort as well.

      • Not at all. I, for one, would rather you and other Orthosphereans published more of your thoughts despite occasional slips like this, rather than keep them in draft mode for weeks while obsessively checking if every t is crossed.

        It also helps that I speak the language, so “Dononso” would sound odd, and therefore set off alarms, even if I did not know to whom it was referring – an aid which I imagine you do not possess, so “Dononso” would sound just as normal as “Donoso” to you.

      • Hi Bonald,

        Please try not to let the typo bother you, my friend. Sometimes I misspell my last name when I type it. Maybe I’ll even ignore my mistake when I type “Bi11” instead of “Bill,” because in some fonts, a lowercase “L” looks much like the digit “1.”

        Maybe it’ll comfort you to know that, after I told Google’s translator to translate an article about Pope Benedict XVI from French to English, it translated his name to “sanctimonious XVI,” the funniest mistranslation I’ve read in years.


  4. I am suspect of the term “collective” guilt especially as it relates to the actions or policies of institutions. For example, Pope John Paul II made many apologies largely under the guise of institutional guilt. During his long reign as Pope, he apologized to Jews, Galileo, women, people convicted by the Inquisition, Muslims killed by the Crusaders and almost everyone who had allegedly suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church over the years.

    Though it may have been well within his established prerogative to engage in this unnecessary behavior as it involved discipline (not faith and morals), his rationale and constant reference to collective guilt was philosophically and perhaps theologically unsound.

    It is philosophically unsound because such apologies tend to be based on an ahistorical judgment of the past as measured against the whimsical, non-standards of today’s decadent and sentimentalist culture. It is also unbelievably arrogant to judge those who have come before by today’s “enlightened” standards. Though I may be tarnished by the shortcomings of those who have come before, my ancestors, I am in no way morally responsible for their individual or collective shortcomings or sins. To say that I am would be to rob them of their human agency and personal need to atone and be redeemed…

    • I worry about collective guilt myself, but we Christians can’t dismiss the concept entirely without sacrificing our understanding of the Fall and Atonement.

      • We can distinguish between collective guilt and collective responsibility. As newborns, none of us had yet committed the sin of Adam. So, we were not yet culpable. Nevertheless we were tainted by it, in the very processes of gestation and birth (e.g., sins of thought on the part of our mothers affected our embryological development, so that we popped out already wired for anger, despair, lust, gluttony, whatever). And this stewing in the juices of sin trained and shaped our very bodies in concupiscence. Thus was the deformation of Original Sin passed down to us from our first parents through our last parents; and this is why, even after our Original Sin has been redeemed, we are still deformed by concupiscence. Any errors of behavior in any of our fellows at any time in our lives – especially in our youth – deform us further.

        Still, at birth we were nowise yet culpable. Yet even as innocent babes, not at all guilty, we were nevertheless responsible for the sins of our fathers and mothers, in the sense that we owed reparation for those sins on behalf of our whole family, tribe, nation. A man whose financial conduct has been impeccable will pass his estate to his heirs unencumbered by any debts. So likewise for his conduct in general. But a moral or financial wastrel will bequeath to his heirs his own economic or moral poverty (these usually play out in practice as if they were the same thing). A son will therefore suffer the ontological, moral and economic consequences of the errors of his forebears; he will pay for those errors, and they will compound in his own life to the detriment of his children and their heirs.

        So, even if we managed by some miracle to get through life perfectly sinless, we would still have to pay the price of the sins of our forefathers, as Mary did: despite her own perfect sinlessness, she was mortal.

  5. Kristor, Is this not a distinguish without a difference? Guilt issues from a recognition of responsibility. They are simply two sides of the same coin. Original sin is a condition of our existence, but in no way does it mean that I, or say my generation of Catholics for that matter, is/are collective responsible or guilty for the fallen nature of my forefathers. They are responsible and guilty for their actions. I may live with the fallout as a consequence of my fealty or by right of my posterity, but I am in not way personally responsible for the failures or sins of those who come before me especially if what they did in the past wasn’t considered a social malady until today.

    • Right, we agree. But I think that the distinction does make a difference. I can be held responsible for my wife’s debts even though I played no role in their inception. I am not culpable for her acts, but I may nevertheless have to pay for the consequences of those acts. It is this distinction that allows us to understand how we can bear the penalty of Original Sin even though we were not present at Eden to participate in its origination. The distinction is often missed, especially in discussions of Original Sin. Most people who learn of the doctrine think that it implies that newborn babies are culpable for the decisions of their forefathers. That’s not what the doctrine teaches.

      But, however, there is a sense in which man as such is guilty of Original Sin; for, no man is an island. Say that one man all by himself destroyed a whole planet of aliens, just for fun. Say then that the President of Humanity was meeting with the King of that species of aliens. It would be altogether appropriate for our President to feel intense shame and remorse for the action of that one criminal man, and to make humble apologies on behalf of all men. Likewise, it would not be altogether inappropriate for the King of the aliens to take the act of that one rogue as an act of war against his species by our species, and to make genocidal war on us.

      Likewise, if my wife killed a boy by her negligence, it would be odd if I did not feel some remorse and shame.

      In Adam, man as man defected from his proper allegiance to God. Each of us then as man owes reparation to God for this defection. And this is the source of our vague and insatiable sense that we need to make sacrifice.

      This is a murky area, but there is definitely something to it.

    • I like the exercise of taking the idea of collective responsibility to small levels, where it should be more intuitive. Does it make sense to be proud of or ashamed of one’s own father? Sure. Does it make sense to inherit his property and be responsible for his debts? Sure, but here I would have explained it by saying that the debts really belong to the family, a corporate person, and that’s why they could pass on from father to son. That is, I personally am a level removed from them. The family owes a debt, and I must provide for the family. If I’m reading Donoso right, he doesn’t like this buffer. I should identify myself with the family enough see its debts as mine personally.

      Charles De Koninck said that the collectivists got the common good wrong by thinking of individuals as having a purely extrinsic relationship to it, that is that they are instruments to it rather than participants in it. Donoso seems to be saying something similar, except in typical reactionary fashion he likes to put things as cheerlessly as possible, emphasizing the common bad instead of the common good.

      • The bonds of loyalty are the bonds of debt, for good and for ill. Just look at the word “bond,” in its two meanings, financial and connective. Think of the marital bond: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. Then compare bound, boundary. The marital bond constitutes and establishes a boundary.

        The ontological order then is bound up with the moral order: thus, the Tao, Karma, the Logos of the Torah.

      • I am personally responsible for all the wrong and the evil in the world, to go by the teachings of Father Zosima (Karamozov Brothers).
        However, I do not myself understand mysticism of this high order.

  6. Bonald,
    You say that solidarity and subsidiarity equate to the liberal principles of liberty and equality.
    1) There is also the liberal principle of Fraternity. Doesn’t that equate to solidarity better than Equality?
    2) In the linked post, you take one commonplace statement from Rerum Novarum:
    “It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten”
    and turn it into a dogma that
    “a man should be the sole provider for his family” as the one true principle of Catholic social teaching.”

    The patriarchy does not derive from and is not dependent upon the man being the sole provider of the family. Most poor women worked historically. I recommend Dorothy Sayers’ essay “Are Women Human”

    • I should clarify that I regard liberty and equality for liberals as analogous to solidarity and subsidiarity to postconciliar Catholics only in the sense that they are two principles that are not obviously consistent and are thus in need of a higher synthesis. I do not think there is any meaningful one-to-one mapping between the one set of principles and the other. For example, subsidiarity has nothing in particular to do with either freedom or equality.

      Historically, it would be strange to say that only women who place themselves under the power of a man other than their father or husband to make money can be said to be “working”. While many women have done so out of financial need, it was certainly not regarded as ideal.

  7. “I am personally responsible for all the wrong and the evil in the world, to go by the teachings of Father Zosima (Karamozov Brothers).However, I do not myself understand mysticism of this high order.”

    Vishmehr24, I find Dostoyevsky’s insight as expressed by Father Zosima philosophically untenable and theologically questionable. Making everyone personally responsible for the ills and evils of this world truly trivializes actual concrete culpability; If everyone’s responsible than no one’s responsible. Our fallen nature and original sin in no way requires a person to constantly engage in what is tantamount to acts of supererogation.

    • “If everyone’s responsible than no one’s responsible”
      This is what a calculation would say. But love is beyond calculation. So what is philosophically or rationally untenable may actually be the vital element in the whole thing.

      • I disagree. That statement you reference has nothing to do with any form of reductionism, mathematical or otherwise.
        I’m not sure how you jump from Father Zosima’s assertion about the evils of the world to “love is beyond calculation.” It assumes that Father Zosima sentiment has its roots in actual human “love”. I take issue with that because “love” properly manifested, and I am speaking of the human capacity for love, which is completely and utterly distinct from divine love, is particularist not universalist in its form. With such a statement, the character of Father Zosima has more in common with sentimental humanitarians.
        Much of the “insights” espoused from the pulpits have more in common with sentimental humanitarianism than they do with Christ’s sacrifice. I’m almost always suspect when folks issue that “love” is the answer; and, in doing so similarly assert that the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ could or should be the path of all believers, which on some level reduces His truly salvific act to anthropocentric aspiration.

  8. My understanding of Cortes’s views is that he saw socialism as appropriating many elements of Catholicism. This placed socialism on the scale between Truth (Catholicism) and error somewhat closer to Catholicism than Anglo-classical liberalism. For Cortes, liberalism lacked a vitality found in Catholicism and socialism:

    With regard to evil, the Liberal school denies it in physical, and admits it in human, things. With this school all the questions relative to good or evil are resolved into a question of government, and every question of government is a question of legitimacy; so that when the government is legitimate, evil is impossible; and on the contrary, when the government is illegitimate, evil is inevitable. The question of good and evil, then, is reduced to investigating on one side which are the legitimate governments, and which the usurpers

    I think that quote more or less sums up modern American conservatism’s Constitution fetish. Socialism at least constructs a grand narrative, inculcates an extremely impoverished notion of the common good. What does liberalism have? Mechanistic political theories and a politics based on self-interest?

    • It’s true, and I didn’t even bother talking about what Donoso had to say about liberalism, because it has turned out to be as ineffectual as he predicted, and nearly all of our opponents today would fit under his definition of “socialists”.

  9. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place

  10. Pingback: Original sin as good news | The Orthosphere


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