Empty Traditionalism

"Separation" (1896) by Edvard Munch. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.
“Separation” (1896) by Edvard Munch. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.

Whoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task. – Theodor Adorno

This is not a hit job.

A hit job would be un-critical defamation of “Traditionalist” philosophy, a takedown with no advice, the always-stale, but ever-present, “gotcha” of so much theoretical talk. I’ve done things like that before, and I repent—this is something different.

This is (obliquely) an attempt to deal with the legacy of Traditionalism in my own life but it is also an analysis of a common form of Traditionalism, a specifically shallow sort with which religions (specifically Catholicism) must reckon, if they hope to remain socially vital (we might also say politically salient). It’s worth writing about not because “Traditionalists” are dominant in the Church, but because their deep commitment to the Church, to faith, is a crucial starting point for religious revitalization.

Empty Traditionalism refuses history as a process. The work of understanding how we got here and where we’re going is reduced to a series of reified terms. I’ll begin with an exemplary one with cultural-political salience:

“Cultural Marxism.” Like all of these terms, this one is so pregnant with ideas, associations, and suggestions that it is essentially empty of content. So much is crammed into its shell that it stands merely as a signal for the validation of previously-held belief. Take this explanation:

Cultural Marxism is a branch of western Marxism, different from the Marxism-Leninism of the old Soviet Union. It is commonly known as “multiculturalism” or, less formally, Political Correctness. From its beginning, the promoters of cultural Marxism have known they could be more effective if they concealed the Marxist nature of their work, hence the use of terms such as “multiculturalism.”

Cultural Marxism began not in the 1960s but in 1919, immediately after World War I. Marxist theory had predicted that in the event of a big European war, the working class all over Europe would rise up to overthrow capitalism and create communism. But when war came in 1914, that did not happen. When it finally did happen in Russia in 1917, workers in other European countries did not support it. What had gone wrong?

Independently, two Marxist theorists, Antonio Gramsci in Italy and Georg Lukacs in Hungary, came to the same answer: Western culture and the Christian religion had so blinded the working class to its true, Marxist class interest that Communism was impossible in the West until both could be destroyed. In 1919, Lukacs asked, “Who will save us from Western civilization?” That same year, when he became Deputy Commissar for Culture in the short-lived Bolshevik Bela Kun government in Hungary, one of Lukacs’s first acts was to introduce sex education into Hungary’s public schools. He knew that if he could destroy the West’s traditional sexual morals, he would have taken a giant step toward destroying Western culture itself […]

Fatefully for America, when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Frankfurt School fled – – and reestablished itself in New York City. There, it shifted its focus from destroying traditional Western culture in Germany to destroying it in the United States. To do so, it invented “Critical Theory.” What is the theory? To criticize every traditional institution, starting with the family, brutally and unremittingly, in order to bring them down. It wrote a series of “studies in prejudice,” which said that anyone who believes in traditional Western culture is prejudiced, a “racist” or “sexist” of “fascist” – – and is also mentally ill.

Most importantly, the Frankfurt School crossed Marx with Freud, taking from psychology the technique of psychological conditioning. Today, when the cultural Marxists want to do something like “normalize” homosexuality, they do not argue the point philosophically. They just beam television show after television show into every American home where the only normal-seeming white male is a homosexual (the Frankfurt School’s key people spent the war years in Hollywood).

Here, “Cultural Marxism,” is figured as everything that certain sorts of conservatives oppose: diversity, multiculturalism, etc. without any real attempt to differentiate ideas, practices, and historical contingencies from one another. It is true that many a Western Marxist was an atheist, but that proves nothing. Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Marcuse—these are all different human beings with different agendas. They are a school insofar as they fused Freud and Marx, sure, but the existence of critique does not immediately mean a philosophy of complete liberation from all cultural institutions of a “traditional bent.” Alasdair MacIntyre is helpful here:

In so doing he [Raymond Geuss, a philosopher] continues and extends some of the enquiries of the Frankfurt School, more especially of Adorno. Three aspects of those enquiries should be kept in mind. They were and are an attempt to free us from the limitations and distortions of the bourgeois cultural and social order inherited from the Enlightenment, so that we may understand the inadequacies of concepts and presuppositions that are taken for granted by and so imprison most of our contemporaries. They posed and pose the painful question of how, if and when we have arrived at such an understanding, we are to live out our everyday lives within a discredited social and cultural order. And their focus was and is on the concrete and the particular, so that generalizations and abstractions, unavoidable as they are, should not obscure the realities that they are designed to disclose. Geuss’s enquiries in all three respects resemble Adorno’s.

I remind you, dear reader, that MacIntyre is deeply traditional in his commitments; he is, after all, a pre-eminent figure in the revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics—and a devout Catholic to boot. Notice that he speaks of “bourgeois cultural and social order inherited from the Enlightenment.” What Empty Traditionalism does is take the term “Cultural Marxism” and cue a concerned Christian’s fear: “Marxism” (generally seen to be bad in the American conservative-traditional mind) and cultural critique (the implication being cultural institutions of ours like marriage) are both brought to mind and much is assumed before any dialogue is attempted with the Frankfurt School as such. MacIntyre, however, is much more careful: he recognizes that Adorno, et al. can be allies in a revitalization of philosophy, precisely because they force us to think historically about the manifestation (and failure) of Enlightenment institutions. Is not the Traditionalist an enemy of these institutions?

To Adorno my inclination is to respond by quoting Dr. Johnson’s friend, Oliver Edwards, who said that he too had tried to be a philosopher, but “cheerfulness was always breaking in”, perhaps a philistine, but also an appropriate response. What grounds then are there for cheerfulness in any social order such as our own about which some of Adorno’s central claims still hold true? Those grounds derive surely from the continuing resistance to deprivations, frustrations, and evils that informs so many everyday lives in so many parts of the world, as well as much of the best thinking about those deprivations, frustrations, and evils, including Adorno’s and Geuss’s. To be good, to live rightly, and to think rightly, it may be said in reply to Adorno, is to be engaged in struggle and a perfected life is one perfected in key part in and through conflicts. […]

That Geuss, like Williams and like Adorno, always provokes us into further questioning is of course a virtue of his essays, not a fault. And that the questions thus provoked are exactly the right questions for us here and now to ask makes it a great and unusual virtue. Geuss has put us in his debt with these essays. They should be required reading for graduate students in — and most of all for those who remain inside — ethics.

More praise! The central point here is that Empty Traditionalism refuses to take seriously the diverse possibilities of history; historical processes are made into concrete slabs to be approved or obliterated: “Cultural Marxism? Delete. The Frankfurt School? Delete.” In reality, these ideas themselves must be seen in context. Adorno and co. were responding to the secular, liberal regimes under which they lived (and which later became further deformed under Nazism). Their insights are thus part of a process, a critical movement interested in divorcing “Western Civilization” (perhaps we might say “Europe”) from the blasé secularism and personal atomism of Enlightenment philosophy. The later appropriation (or misappropriation) of their ideas (and again we must think historically about why their ideas were so appropriated) is not itself a strike against the thinkers themselves. Do we repudiate Augustine because of Luther and Calvin? Is Aquinas merely a paganizer? Must the baby go with the bathwater?

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