Augusto del Noce (1910-89) is among the least well known of the brilliant political philosophers of the twentieth century. Having the misfortune of composing very dense academic writings in Italian, and generally considered “conservative,” Del Noce found there was little interest in translating his work for a larger academic audience; Italian academic publishing in the area of politics was dominated by the various strands of Marxism prevalent in Italy in the postwar world.1
Yet, Del Noce developed a series of insights into the developing culture of the West beginning in the 1960s that still have not been broadly appropriated. In this article, I will explore how Del Noce’s thought explains why it was that the West’s victory in the Cold War yielded such desultory results. By the time the Cold War ended, the West was already riddled with a culture in a profound state of decay, coupled with a spiritual malaise that would, in another generation, lead to a situation wherein each side of the dominant “left-right” political cleavage would come to contain significant amounts of irrationality and moral bankruptcy. Surely the utter collapse of the Christian West in the matter of a generation requires a more compelling explanation than what is generally given.
Concerning Del Noce’s background, he was on his mother’s side a descendant of an old aristocratic family, raised in Turin. 2Intellectually, his background is obscure for most in the Anglo-American world unfamiliar with Italian intellectual life. He came of age in an intellectual world divided between Benedetto Croce, who became the principal opposition to Mussolini, and Giovanni Gentile, who became the philosopher of Italian Fascism. Del Noce would describe his position later as “isolated anti-fascism.”3
Although not affiliated with any Catholic intellectual movements per se, Del Noce was born and remained Catholic, and would throughout his life distance himself from advocates of violence right and left. Trying to find his own way, Del Noce discovered Maritain’s Integral Humanism, and he would always cite Maritain as an example of an historically engaged philosopher, willing to challenge secular philosophy from a standpoint non-reactionary and mindful of the classic and Christian tradition. He would identify himself as in the classic metaphysical tradition of ancient Greece (especially Plato), Augustine, Aquinas and Rosmini. Nonetheless, his emphasis on identifying the metaphysical assumptions behind modern thinkers and tracing lines of thought based on these would mark him as an entirely original thinker.
Among Del Noce’s novel interpretations of the development of Western thought, his understanding of the fate of Marxism is among the most compelling. To say either that Marxism won or lost in the Cold War and its aftermath is an oversimplification leaving far too much unexplained. If Marxism won, then why did it collapse in its central stronghold, and why is it today equally passé in its second stronghold: China. And if Marxism won, how could we possibly explain the Western economy which is far more dominated by big corporations and finance capital than the world of 1960 could have even imagined? And if it lost, then who or what undid the “Christian West?” How would it be that all of Marx’s negations of religion, metaphysics and ethics reign in the academy today? No explanation centering on “liberalism” and “conservatism” suffices. For Del Noce, there was something profound going on during the 60s and afterward not captured by standard interpretations.
Del Noce’s unique methodology was to examine the metaphysical assumptions behind political ideologies and then “trace” how these ideologies developed historically. One of his central insights was that schools of thought often changed in their interaction with other schools, leaving them the same in some ways but changed in others. He calls this process sublation (drawing on an Hegelian term, although Del Noce was in no sense an Hegelian). Now Marxism itself did not undergo exactly a sublation. Marxism-Leninism came to an end because it had two features which were simply irreconcilable and could no longer hold together. Del Noce saw this dissolution as far back as the 1960s, seeing Marxism-Leninism then in a state of full decline.4
To say the least, that was not a position shared by many at the time. But Del Noce saw to the root of things. On the one hand, Marxism unleashed into the intellectual world, then the broader culture, the idea that political ideas were mere effects, offshoots of underlining economic realities, especially social class. In its original formulation, Marx would understand political, sociological, historical, religious, artistic, even legal notions as “constructs” (to use a later vocabulary), having no independence or integrity of their own, linked in dependent fashion to the material reality of the economic system.
In time, this tendency would deepen and broaden in so-called postmodern thinking, partly by adding race and gender to the original focus on economically defined social classes. Recall that the influences of these “constructed” ideas were held to be no less powerful regardless of whether the one using them was aware of the underlying reality or not. To take a contemporary example, one can be a thorough perpetrator of “systemic racism” and have absolutely no awareness of it. Such people just cannot see that their thinking about race conceals hidden agendas of domination. It is now the task of the intellectual to unpack, “demythologize,” “unmask” the underlying structures of power and control. Clearly, this way of proceeding leads to the most profound relativism imaginable. No “construct” can claim absolute validity, and all ethical and political ideals are reduced to whatever set of shifting historical social circumstances explained their existence in the first place.
The problem that Marxism could not solve, however, was that it was ultimately incompatible with this kind of relativism. All hitherto existing moral and political thought could be demythologized and unmasked, but for Marx there did remain an absolute: the class struggle, and the revolution. These could not be relativized in the way other concepts were; if so, Marxism-Leninism would die.5 This seems to be what brought Del Noce to conclude that the existing Marxism-Leninism in Russia and East Europe could not survive, particularly in light of what he observed in the West. The student uprisings of the 1960s were in no way leading to the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The West was becoming a consumerist society driven by a new, technocratic way of thinking; the working class was not revolutionary and the student revolution was far more driven by eroticism than Marx’s version of the proletarian class struggle. Here it must be noted another distinct feature of Del Noce’s thought: he places the sexual revolution at the very core of the changes occurring in the West. For Del Noce, it was indeed a revolution with the full implications of the word, but it displaced Marx’s focus on the strictly economic dimension of class struggle. While revolutionary impulses were indeed set off in the West, they were not to be of the kind that would overthrow the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie would incorporate or work around the sexual revolution, and they would be happy to market what had been called pornography, along with the new, revolutionary intellectual products of the academy, but the bourgeoisie indeed prevailed over the Marxist-Leninist call to class warfare.
Del Noce underlines that the bourgeoisie historically had two enemies to cope with: one was Marxism, but the other was the Catholic Church, which insisted on an immutable morality. Catholics and other Christians of a traditional bent argued against bourgeois materialism. Just imagine the reduction of economic opportunities if there were no divorce, no pornography, none of the eroticism that drives culture today in all areas, no markets for products geared to the homosexual audience, and, in general, a culture that frowned on a materialistic approach to life. In Del Noce’s view, the unraveling of Marxism into the victory of “the affluent society” driven by technology led to a society where both of the traditional rivals of the bourgeoisie were defeated. To Marx’s everlasting chagrin, Soviet socialism ended up being a stage on the way to the victory of the bourgeoisie.
Getting back to the precise dynamic by which the Cold War ended, Marxism “won” in the sense that it unleashed the relativism and materialism that would thoroughly undermine Western civilization. It “lost” because it left the bourgeoisie intact, demoted the USSR to a regional power, and left the United States the economic and military kingpin. What emerged in the West was something not at all predicted by Marxist theory, nor was it well explained by the customary “liberal-conservative” dichotomy. For Del Noce, what emerged in the West was “the affluent society,” driven culturally by consumerism and at the macro-level by the scientistic-technocratic thought that was part of the victorious ideology. In reality, as Del Noce contends, it was really far more of a victory of one kind of atheism in the West over another kind in the East. The truth was that the combination of the sexual revolution and the proliferation of new consumer products provided by advancing technology offered a far more appealing kind of atheism than the one that existed in the former Soviet bloc, with the latter’s more obviously backward economy and totalitarian political system. To use Del Noce’ own words concerning “the affluent society”:
It is a society that accepts all of Marxism’s negations against contemplative thought, religion and metaphysics; that accepts, therefore, the Marxist reduction of ideas to instruments of production; that, on the other hand, rejects the revolutionary-messianic aspects of Marxism. . . In this regard, it truly represents the bourgeois spirit in its pure state. . . triumphant over . . . transcendent religion and revolutionary thought.
Here Del Noce surprises us yet again. What emerged in the West was not the victory of liberty or democracy (as interpreted ad nauseum by contemporary media), but rather a “new totalitarianism,” along with a new atheism, in a sense more pernicious than those served up by the older atheistic totalitarianism in the East. To those accustomed to reduce democracy to the vote, Del Noce’s claim appears ludicrous. Yet again, Del Noce’s thought goes to the depths. The deepest roots of totalitarianism are not the mere absence of ballot boxes, but the curtailing of rationality, the ultimate denial of reason’s scope and depth. If there is no transcendent, immutable truth that our reason has access to, then there is no immutable ethics determined by reason, and political authority is in a position to define for itself the right and the wrong. Ethics and culture become subsumed by politics. Under this regime, anyone who attempts to formulate an argument against the state cannot do on any recognizably rational basis. The attempted criticism will be interpreted along the lines of the class/ race/ gender triumvirate. The state need not even get involved in “exposing” such critics. There is never any shortage of academics who are happy to do it; to reveal the class, race and gender biases of “conservatives”puts them on the cutting edge. This is the deepest root of totalitarianism, and Del Noce saw it progressively taking hold in the West. The only truth that exists is that defined by the scientistic-technocratic way of thinking that came to the fore once scientific positivism came to prevail.
Let us take a closer look at how Del Noce characterizes the culture that emerged in the West in the 1960s until the end of the Cold War. Del Noce saw the post-sixties culture in the West as grounded in three pillars: eroticism, positivism, and secularization. These three are all aspects of the same underlying reality, which is atheism.
Beginning with eroticism, Del Noce was the first to direct attention to a minor figure in the psychoanalytic movement, Wilhelm Reich. Del Noce insists that everything one needs to know about the sexual revolution can be found in Reich’s volume with exactly that title.6 Del Noce gravitates to Reich because he of all the writers promoting sexual permissiveness gets to the metaphysical roots of the movement. The purpose is to destroy Christian moral tradition and the family altogether. Reich understood that Christian morality was passed on principally through the family and that no real revolution could occur so long as the institution of the family survived intact. Reich thought that Marx’s revolution was incomplete for having failed to address systematically the moral dimension. In this Reich was joined by the surrealists, who equally contended that Marxism must be supplemented by an anti-Christian moral critique. Otherwise, it would not be possible to overthrow Christian civilization. Reich may have been alone in his conviction that the United States was the ideal place to pursue his revolution, his having become disillusioned with the Soviet Union by the 1950s. It would take some time for conditions to be ripe, but Reich’s revolution would take hold in the 1960s.7 While certainly not alone in recognizing the sexual revolution, Del Noce was arguably the only political philosopher who understood the sexual revolution in its depths as a true revolution against Western civilization and gave it such emphasis. For Del Noce, eroticism is one of the pillars of the atheistic society.
Eroticism was linked to the second pillar of the emerging atheistic culture: scientific positivism. Del Noce mentions more than once that De Sade’s heroine, Juliette, rejected all “idols” except science.8 It is important to recall that the atheism Del Noce refers to here is not simply a rejection of Christian Revelation. It includes a rejection of any assertion of an immutable, transcendent reality. Recalling the previous discussion, Marxism implanted in the West the firm relativist tendency whereby ideas would be reduced to their sociological underpinnings as originating in various forms of class, race or gender oppression. I should add here that the Freudian influence would add internal psychic disorders as another source of oppression, or better, “repression.” This line of thinking greatly supported the advance of eroticism, as all traditional restraints could be written off as forms of irrational fears.
Thus, all philosophical truths, most especially natural law, also had to go. In this world, the only recognized expression of truth would be science. Science is the only school of thought that cannot be reduced to its social origins and role. All else is ideology or mere opinion. Natural law came to be seen as just a cover for, variously, capitalism with its property domination, classism, racism and patriarchy. Few would see the depth of the destruction wrought by scientific positivism. Although it was more the revolution of Comte than Marx, positivism would sweep away natural law and natural rights. If we can come to no moral conclusions as to how a human being should be treated simply by knowing that he is a human being, then clearly there is no basis for any form of natural right. It is worth noting that even “conservative” judicial thinking today accepts the notion that natural law can play no role in judicial decision-making. Skepticism toward all moral claims is the reigning ideology. But its philosophical origins go back to the positivism that took over in the law schools decades ago.
The third pillar of the atheistic culture is secularization, understood to mean the negation of transcendence. This goes hand-in-hand with positivism, and is a direction of modern philosophy generally. In his first major work, The Problem of Atheism, Del Noce explained in detail modernity’s development along these lines, demonstrating that, initially, atheism was not the end sought; modernity attempted to develop a line of thinking Del Noce terms “divine immanence,” but contends that this failed and ultimately gave way to rationalism and, finally, atheism.9
One of the factors that makes secularization such a powerful trend is that it draws no attention to itself; it rather redefines reality along positivist lines to the point where God is left out and ultimately becomes “unthinkable.” No one writes a book to disprove the existence of Zeus. The fate of Zeus is more or less God’s fate in contemporary developments, wherein science and technology reign supreme. Again, secularization here does not only mean that society becomes less religious in outlook; it is the entire realm of the transcendent that is being written out, which includes classical philosophy as well.
Del Noce does have much to say about how secularization impacts religion. Rather than deny God outrightly, theology under the influence of secularization lost its faith often without realizing it. God was immanentized, just as in nineteenth-century philosophy (most notably Hegel). Theology refocused away from the transcendent God and the “vertical causality” which underlined him as the Creator, the Redeemer, the source of all grace and the sole source of our salvation. Theology’s new focus became the world, as Maritain had noted by the late 1960s.10
The shift away from transcendence
Transcendent themes came to be largely replaced by political, social, economic, and environmental ones. A discussion of the “four last things” came to seem out of place. The shift away from transcendence in theology led slowly but surely to a new form of atheism, wherein original sin plays no effective role and salvation is so reduced to political and social circumstances that the kingdom is largely evacuated of any transcendent content. To be more specific, consider the unrecognized yet drastic changes that have occurred in religious discourse over the theme of social justice. Social justice is of course a perfectly valid theological concept, and has resulted in a large-scale formalization and development of Catholic Social Teaching in the past 130 years. But somewhere along the line, although never explicitly stated, it came to be assumed more and more that obeying the Ten Commandments was irrelevant to the “social justice project.” Today it would be commonplace to propose the existence of a socially just society wherein the Sixth Commandment was completely negated. Much the same can be said for most of the other Commandments.
Yet it dawns on few how radically secularization has reoriented theology away from the transcendent God to political and economic discourses riddled with the impacts of positivism and eroticism. Del Noce was perhaps the first to note that theology was attempting to divide the virtues into categories; most traditional virtues were relegated to mere “ascetic” virtues, replaced by the dispositions that would “build the kingdom” here on earth. Or consider biblical studies, where to raise the very question of what the transcendent God is saying through the Scriptures is considered the height of naiveté. Del Noce summarized the situation well when he spoke of reactions to an anti-pornography protest in the late 1960s in Europe, when the protestors were asked why they were not protesting the situation of blacks in the U.S., or victims of torture. “Why,” instead, “are you concerned with fighting useless battles.”11
Behind this intellectual shift is that theology has conceded the superiority of science. This explains the shift away from transcendence, which cannot be demonstrated empirically, and the corresponding shift away from discussing the Commandments when trying to explain political violence, poverty, the breakdown of the family, and other deepening pathologies of our time. “God” is not left out of the discourse, but he is an immanent God of progressive political leanings who makes little of most transgressions of the Ten Commandments. It is worth noting that Del Noce believes that so much of what is wrong with theology in the post-Vatican II era was well summarized by Pius X in Pascendi Domenici Gregis in 1907. Del Noce is completely aware of how unpopular it is in contemporary theology even to make such a citation, but stands firm in his conviction that the document was eminently prophetic and is not in the least outdated in its broad outlines. Pius X saw clearly that what he termed modernism in theology necessarily terminates in atheism, a point which contemporary theologians seem unable to see at all.
In the end, Del Noce views our current culture as unknowingly and unwittingly grounded in atheism. Recall that Del Noce died at the end of 1989, so there are certainly many interesting nuances in what has occurred since then, but we are still living in a scientistic-technocratic world driven by consumption, and that this exists as the product of the trends Del Noce identifies. We are immersed in a culture wherein atheism controls the important levers, and this is leading to an ongoing descent into a “new totalitarianism.”
As a final point, I would note that Del Noce himself resisted characterization along ideological lines. He evinces little interest in what the United States calls conservatism in the economic sense, largely libertarianism. Additionally, he believed that positivism undermined any moral criticism of the existing society. Hence the big economic interests tended to operate with less restraint. But it is in the negation of transcendence where Del Noce finds the key to the entire development of atheism in the West, and this negation is not well accounted for or captured by what passes for conservatism today. How much of what the newspapers might call conservatism on any given day has to do with reasserting transcendence in any meaningful sense? To refer to a place where we might have the greatest hope for a renewal of conservative principle today, the courts, I think sadly that what we find there is yet another example of where transcendence has been removed. Conservative jurists have spoken as harshly against the use of natural law in jurisprudence as anyone. We have all heard the claims of “originalism,” but fail to see how useless it is once the reality of a transcendent law (natural law) is taken out of the picture.
I conclude with two clear examples. “Originalism” would have us interpret the Bill of Rights as they were originally interpreted. But what happens when I ask the most basic of questions, Who is the holder of those rights? We would probably say it was the “men” referenced in the Declaration. But the Constitution simply assumes we know what a man is. If we evacuate that understanding (which is what we have done since Roe v. Wade) and permit political authority to define who a man is under the law, then what is ultimately protected? What right has been preserved? It is obvious that the Bill of Rights quickly dissolves into nothing if we have no permanent understanding of who the men are who are subjects of rights.
Similarly, federal law, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when it forbade “sex discrimination,” simply assumes that people know what “sex” is, who men and women are. But now, after the Bostock case, a “conservative” on the court has delivered us of any hope that future laws might reliably be based on common sense understandings of gender. Just as Roe redefined (and left vague) who was a legitimate owner of a “right to life,” so we have reached a stage where who men and women are is up for grabs, to be determined by individual selves along any gender scale they might wish to construct for themselves. This is “conservative” jurisprudence today, a jurisprudence which has for decades refused to say that the Constitution grants a right to life to all human beings. Let me be clear that there is no conservative sitting on the Court who intends to say that federal law must be interpreted by a transcendent standard of who a man is, or who a man is opposed to a woman.
Originalism is nothing more than a new “construct” for relativists to make hay out of. The moral of this story is the same as in a whole range of other stories observable in the contemporary world. We have failed to see that the only cleavage that matters, the only one worth fighting for, is the one that asserts the existence of a transcendent reality, an immutable Source of Law, of life and of being. That is the true cleavage that divides people today. Augusto Del Noce was an indispensable figure for the West as it wrestles to recognize this truth and its full implications.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!