When anti-modernism was cool

An essay at American Affairs tells the story of when New Left celebrity anti-capitalist Catholic priest Ivan Illich came to give a lecture to a crowd of feminists at Berkeley in 1982. Illich spoke on his research on the social construction of gender roles, which might have been expected to go over well. However, it turned out that Illich’s take was that the damned greedy capitalists had spoiled everything by eliminating distinct men’s and women’s economic and social roles. This was not what the feminists wanted to hear, and Illich’s standing on the Left cratered.

(By the way, the dying man in Tolstoy’s short story is Ivan Ilyich, in case you are as tempted to mix up the two as I was.)

Had Illich turned reactionary, as his opponents said? In fact, much of his late 20th century radical anti-capitalist critique was the same as the early 20th century anti-liberal critique common among anti-modernist Catholics. Illich’s attacks on public schools and the authority of the medical establishment sound particularly right-wing today. There was a window of time when anti-modern Catholics could repackage themselves as counterculture gurus–Marshall McLuhan being probably the best-known case. Alasdair MacIntyre arguably played a similar role in philosophy in those years. A recent article in Church Life Journal on MacIntyre notes this paradoxical anti-modernist ecumenism.

Revolutionaries often reversed the politics of their reactionary progenitors, while preserving their hatred of the bourgeois, of liberalism, or of the West, and their refusal to accept and adapt to the present. Sometimes chronological turning points sketch intellectual boundaries. Very often, the reactionaries of 1910 were the forefathers of the revolutionaries of 1945. The condemnation of liberalism by the Syllabus of 1864 paradoxically favored Marxism. Before Marx, Maurras was considered the champion of the “Christian recovery.” The “red” Dominicans of the 1950s and 1960s had as their masters the Royalist and reactionary Dominicans from the early twentieth century. The worker priests were raised in the school of Action française. The postwar Christian Marxists were grateful to the communists for their hostility to representative democracy. Had they not, as good monarchists, learned to hate it?

Intellectual life in the 1970s was childish, vulgar, and stupid compared to pre-WWII intellectual life, but compared to what we have now, it seems wonderful.

19 thoughts on “When anti-modernism was cool

  1. Yes. I remember when there was something hip about liking Alasdair McIntyre. I didn’t know that about McLuhan.

    • I’ve not even heard of Alasdair McIntyre, Richard! Must look him up. Not a Scottish bowls commentator?

      A few years back, I read Bill Buckley’s interview (yes, that Mr. FBuckley, gracious good afternoon…https://youtu.be/MkwaanxZDBw) with McLuhan and I just didn’t understand all the hub-bub surrounding McLuhan, especially in conjunction with the, as I recall it, reductio ad absurdum argument exemplified by the title of The Medium is the Message. Faddish? I guess it sold books and magazines.

      Of course, as Bonald’s has post-scripted, almost in passing (but so important to have noted) — even their discussion is light years advanced in its literacy quotient as compared to the current “mainstream” strata of discussion, which I peek into from time to time, keeping my distance as best I can.

      I continue to discover (as on this website) many Americans who, by their writing and public speaking, appear to be as or nearly as literate, judicious, thoughtful and well-spoken.

      • After Virtue is the place to start with McIntyre. Then maybe Whose Virtue? Whose Rationality?

      • Thank you, JM. By the way, I’m reading Graham Robb’s, The Ancient Paths and I recalled today, as I read, that you are an historical geographer. I wonder if you know of this study? I have none of the tools of a professional geographer and much of the detail goes over my head. His claim, essentially, is that the Druids mapped Gaul by means of solstice lines, using the Via Heraklea, stretching from the Pillars of Hercules to the Alps in a straight line, as its basis, and settling their “oppida” along those lines. To me, it seems like brilliant scholarship based upon intensive reading, actual observation (he biked thousands of miles in France searching for sites and monuments to prove his point) and painstaking detective work. Might you know of this book and have a more learned opinion of it than I can muster?

      • I’m afraid I know nothing about druidical surveying and cartography. This sounds a little like lay lines, about which I am agnostic. The survey you describe sounds something like the township and range system of the United States, which was based on Roman models. The question is, what was the purpose of the survey. Was it economic (property lines), military (roads and forts), or religious (sacred art)? You can get a good sense of the actual human geography in those parts, around 24 A.D., in Strabo’s Geography.

      • Thank you for your comments. As I understand Robb’s thesis, the Druids laid out solstice lines for the practical purpose of mass tribal migration, but the underlying idea set that governed their organization of the physical locations of habitation and travel were divine. That is, the kenning of the gods’ intent by means of overlaying onto the physical geography a divine order, the movement of sun and stars being the indicators which had to be understood. Robb has actually created a map, derived from archaeological sites and close reading of ancient writers, demonstrating, for example, the path of the Helvetii as described by Roman authors, which had not before Robb’s discovery, made much sense. Interesting idea about lay lines, which I will try to learn something about.

      • I read Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth a few years ago, which sets forth the same theses. John Michell has done a lot of work on this, too; as have so many British eccentrics and geniuses over the last 300 years.

        The patterns are right there on the map. Once you see them, you can’t unsee them. And you can’t ascribe their wonderfully precise geometry and astronomy to mere chance.

  2. As I recall, E. F. Schumacher was another example, repackaging Catholic social doctrine as “Buddhist economics”.

  3. Catholicism is always revolutionary when it is not in power integrally. Come to think of it, Catholicism is always revolutionary *even when it is (whether really or only ostensibly) in power integrally.* But then, in the practice of realpolitik, Catholicism – like all other dogmatic systems – is at most nominally – and so, at some far practical and formal remove, nomologically – in power.

    Catholicism is the apotheosis of critique, of all worldly stuff whatsoever. Marxism got nothing on that. Matthew 22:21.

    Because Catholicism is catholic, it can entrain Buddhism, pantheism, paganism, or whatever other partial truths there might be out there. Ditto also with respect to the varieties of social policy.

    All that is needed for this entrainment to proceed, and thus to garner for the Tradition such novel fruits of discourse as may from time to time beneficially arise, is that the Tradition remain true to herself throughout. So, yeah, e.g., Origen, Tertullian, Abelard and Teilhard, here and there, but not wholly. This is the sort of sorting that the Magisterium has shown herself over centuries extremely adept at effecting. She’s amazingly talented at frustrating all those who have for her some agenda.

    Deo gracias.

    So, anyway, if Schumacher is right about economics – which I think he is – then yeah, Buddhist economics and Catholic economics are both just economics, period full stop; are not, i.e., materially different, as being no more than different emphases of the same set of basic truths.

    Buddhism is not false. It is, rather, just true in part. Thomism subsumes it. This is not hard to see, but rather only controversial to see. And, to moderns, irksome.

    • All beliefs not in power are effectively revolutionary, right?

      You’re right about the Church’s catholicity. Maybe I shouldn’t have implied that calling Catholic economics “Buddhist economics” is false advertising. The Left has departed so far from the prior consensus of all mankind that all the world’s religions and traditional cultures find themselves in a common front, if only they would realize it. I remember reading a story somewhere that someone asked Schumacher why he didn’t just call it “Catholic economics”, and he replied that he wanted people to actually read it. A telling anecdote if true.

  4. The old non-Marxist left was not necessarily hostile to Christianity, politically or intellectually. We can see this in the way that C.S. Lewis was influenced by William Morris. Up to 1970 or so, a strain of Christianity was part of the counterculture, but was not just another face of the counterculture. When I first published academic essays, the leftists in my discipline assumed that I must be one of them because they believed the Left had a monopoly on anti-modern thought.

  5. This change is to be rejoiced in. Conformation with the World should be as disgusting, degrading, and difficult as possible, so as to tempt as few of Christ’s followers as possible, and to mark those who do fall to this temptation as strongly as possible with shame and disapprobation and therefore encourage repentance.

    • Hey, Bonald is prone to apprehending our allies even in traditional Islam. As am I, these days, mirabile dictu. Whatever is human is allied together against what is insane, mad, evil. And Islam is not altogether insane, mad, or evil; in no other way might it have earned the loyalty of so many millions.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.