By Vincent Clarke
In this essay, we will be asking whether there is anything of worth on the intellectual left. We will not be considering more pragmatic disciplines such as economics. Rather we will be focusing on philosophical and expressly political ideas. Some thinkers in the post-fusionist Catholic sphere have pointed to these ideas—typically formulated as some sort of Catholic Marxism—as being a way forward. Others—including the integralist movement—have rejected the worldview lying behind these ideas but have claimed that there are interesting components that can be refashioned.
So far, the discussion of these ideas has not considered that they emerged as a response to and ultimately as a replacement for the liberal ideas that arose during the Enlightenment. The original proponents attempted to incorporate the Romantic critiques that arose against liberal Enlightenment ideas in the 18th and early 19th century into the liberal Enlightenment project. By taking this perspective we hope to show that these left-wing ideas are ultimately the flipside of the liberal Enlightenment project that was formulated against classical and Catholic systems of thought. For that reason, they should, at best, be viewed coolly, at worst, with extreme suspicion.
For reasons of space we will stick closely to what appear to be the core ideas. This will allow us to give a full contextual and historical overview of the idea and how it relates to classical and pre-Enlightenment thought.
Alienation, or Marxian Metaphysics
Whether we argue that liberalism began to emerge with Hobbes or Locke or even Bacon, we can say that it was originally formulated as a mechanistic and dispassionate intervention in politics and culture. These ideas were, from the beginning, a response to the passions of religion as manifest in the Wars of Religion. The first generation of liberals were not antinomian revolutionaries so much as they were nervous administrators—social and political managers preaching tolerance in the hope of avoiding civil war.
But it soon became clear that Man was not made for management. The Romantic thinkers brought the question of passion and affirmative personal freedom back on the stage. Whether this was in the immature fantasies of Goethe’s young Werther or in the sophisticated political mythology of Rousseau’s Man-in-the-state-of-nature, the message was clear: notional freedom coupled with drab political management was not enough; Man was built for love, transgression, self-actualisation and the Enlightenment project must recognise that.
Accusations soon followed: It was thought that the liberal Enlightenment project, with its dull bourgeois rationalism, crushed Man in his project to be free. In throwing off the shackles of religion, the Romantics argued, post-Enlightenment Man had signed himself up to the slave ship of dreary rationality. Man, they claimed, was alienated by liberal bourgeois society.
‘Alienation’, or ‘Entfremdung’ in the original German, is an unusual term. At the time when the Romantics, especially Hegel, were discussing it, there were three general meanings. One was a legal meaning which denoted the selling of a man’s rights over his own property. Another was a social term meaning the estrangement of a man from his peers. The final medico-psychiatric meaning – connected to the previous usage—was the loss of a man’s capacity for reason and his falling into insanity (Geyer et al 1976, p5). Indeed, until the mid-twentieth century it was not uncommon for psychiatrists to be referred to, especially in France, as ‘alienists.’
The original Hegelian use of the term was most closely associated with the medico-psychiatric meaning. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel discusses “the Alienated Soul” or, in his terminology, “the Unhappy Consciousness” as “the consciousness of self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely contradictory being” (Hegel 1807, B. IV, (b))). Hegel describes a consciousness that looks upon itself as an object – that judges itself and deems itself unworthy. In modern pop psychological language, Hegel seems to be discussing something like self-hatred. Hegel takes the alienated consciousness to task saying that this self-judgement rests on a contradiction: if the consciousness is judging itself, this is equivalent to a judge judging his own judgement. Infinite regress follows. This is overcome for Hegel when the alienated consciousness recognises itself as its own judge and in doing so overcomes the contradiction and becomes unified.
Note that Hegel does not project the alienation onto the external world. This, for him, would merely be a cop-out—a manifestation of blaming the world for problems that the Spirit or psyche has not sufficiently overcome. Later on, Hegel will warn against this projection of the alienated consciousness outward:
The heartthrob for the welfare of mankind passes therefore into the rage of frantic self-conceit, into the fury of consciousness to preserve itself from destruction; and to do so by casting out of its life the perversion which it really is, and by straining to regard and to express that perversion as something else. The universal ordinance and law it, therefore, now speaks of as an utter distortion of the law of its heart and of its happiness, a perversion invented by fanatical priests, by riotous, revelling despots and their minions, who seek to indemnify themselves for their own degradation by degrading and oppressing in their turn—a distortion practised to the nameless misery of deluded mankind. (Hegel 1807, AA. V, B, (b)—my emphasis.)
Of course, some of Hegel’s followers decided to do just that. The most prominent was Ludwig Feuerbach who used Hegel’s dialectical apparatus—built to accommodate a fusion of post-Enlightenment rational deism and a defence of Christian morality—against religion. In his The Essence of Christianity, published in 1844, Feuerbach argued that religion was a product of alienation. Man thought that he was worshipping God, Feuerbach argued, but really this was just a projection of his own consciousness. Feuerbach could not be clearer:
The consciousness of God is the self-consciousness of man; the knowledge of God is the self-knowledge of man. Man’s notion of himself is his notion of God, just as his notion of God is his notion of himself—the two are identical. What is God to man, that is man’s own spirit, man’s own soul; what is man’s spirit, soul, and heart—that is his God. God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love. (Feuerbach 1844, I, §2.)
From here it was not long before Feuerbach and his followers were denouncing—just as Hegel warned they would—the “perversions invented by fanatical priests.” But that was not enough. The French Revolution, in its attempt to fuse liberal Enlightenment Reason and Romanticism, was content with directing its ire against the priests and the kings, but in 19th century Europe it was becoming clear that a new ruling class was ascendant: the bourgeoisie. So, it was inevitable—especially after the revolutions of 1848—that the notion of alienation would be pushed further than Feuerbach had attempted.
Feuerbach’s account was purely negative. It counselled that Man should throw off the shackles of religion and worship at the altar of himself. Perhaps that would require murdering a few priests, but it did not require upending the social order: it could not be used to justify the 1848 revolutionaries. Marx would soon make the point that Feuerbach’s thesis was ahistorical and it “does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society” (Marx 1845). Here the critique moves up the ladder, from the relation between the individual and the Church, to the relation between the individual and society as mediated by the Church.
Now a new avenue for social criticism is opened. We have swung all the way back from the medico-psychiatric meaning of ‘alienation’ to the social. Social alienation was, until now, largely seen as the product of a defective individual consciousness. But Marx would turn that around: it was not the alienated man who felt his alienation like a weight on his shoulders that was the problem; it was the society itself.
Marx conceived of alienation in bourgeois society as being tied up with the production process under capitalism. The key passage is as follows:
The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever-cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity— and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general. This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces—labor’s product—confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation. (Marx 1844, I, IV.)
The solution to this is obvious: to change the relations of production in such a way as to ensure that Man sees the objects of his production as objects of his production. We have come a long way from Hegel. Whatever one thinks of Hegel’s Panglossian post-Enlightenment liberal Protestantism, at least he was dealing with an issue that was straightforward: the psychological problem of self-alienation. Hegel was playing philosopher as psychologist and encouraging his readers to reflect on themselves until they occupied a place of coherence and mental comfort. It is not hard to see how Hegel expects the Alienated Soul to get from A to B.
With Feuerbach this becomes rather dubious. He seems to be suggesting that the problem is the priest. His solution would then be to throw off the shackles of religion. If the notion that less religion would lead to less personal alienation appeared dubious in the first half of the 19th century, today it appears absurd – the very opposite of the truth. One need not even cite statistical studies showing much less alienation amongst the religious, but just reflect on the fact that modern sociology as it emerged in the work of Durkheim was premised on the idea that secularisation led to alienation or ‘anomie’. Still, on his own terms we can at least take Feuerbach’s argument seriously: if it really is the priest that is the cause of personal alienation—presumably through the spreading of some nefarious morality—then it is clear how the removal of the priest will remove the source of alienation.
Few have commented on it, but from a common sense point-of-view Marx’s thesis seems very strange indeed. It seems to imply that self-alienation—effectively a psychological problem—will disappear if Man gets greater consciousness of the fact that the goods he is producing in a factory and then buys at the market are actually the goods he produced. How does this work exactly? Would the same effect be achieved if Man is sat down and made to watch hours of film about the production and distribution systems of a modern, decentralised economy? It is hard to see why the latter should not work in the Marxian frame of reference. Marx’s theory sounds impressive when pitched at a high theoretical level, but when closely examined it seems a little silly.
How does it relate to Catholic thought? Well, first it should now be clear that it arises out of a system that is totally at odds with Catholic thought. It starts with the well-meaning liberal Protestantism of a Hegel that encourages Man to overcome his alienation through rational self-reflection—not unlike contemporary psychotherapy—and then counsels a combination of post-Enlightenment deism and stripped down Christian morality as a principle on which to organise an effectively liberal society. It then mutates into belligerent atheism with Feuerbach who is quick to blame the Church for psychological distress—a very common underbelly of post-Enlightenment rationalism. Finally, it turns into a critique of the production process in capitalism and religion is tossed aside as the ‘opium of the masses.’ At best, this final development is a form of naïve Pelagianism; at worst, it is the sort of ideology that led to everything from the Spanish Red Terror to the violent suppression of the Church in the Soviet Union. Lying within every Marxist is an angry Feuerbachian—and this especially so when the seizing of private property fails to ameliorate psychological distress.
In Catholic thought, alienation is simply a product of a disordered Will that is not sufficiently aligned with God and the natural law. “Our heart is restless,” St Augustine writes of his former alienation, “until it finds its rest in Thee.” Alienation is the product of Sin. Even abstracting from the deep theological components of this account, it lines up remarkably well with common sense. A person likely feels alienation because he is living poorly. He is devoting himself to various false gods and not recognising the truth of the real God. His desires are clamorous and disordered because he will not submit his Will to the natural law. Thus, for integralists and promoters of Catholic thought it is obvious how mass alienation should be overcome: by ordering our societies to the natural law. The better aligned societies are with the natural law, the less people will experience alienation, because by being ordered by the natural law, man is being ordered in accordance with his own nature. It is a simple, straightforward account and one that lines up remarkably well with the statistical studies that post-Durkheimian sociology would have us believe. It is also—last time this author checked—the official position of the Catholic Church.
Even if some Catholic Marxists accept this broad account, they might argue that a more streamlined version of Marx can be helpful in achieving precisely that. It is to this that we now turn.
Commodity Fetishism, or Marxian Anthropology
One line of defence of Marxist thought is to say that the concept of alienation was a product of the ‘young Marx’s’ thinking which was superseded in his later mature works—most notably Capital. The idea here is that Marx in his ‘Hegelian phase’—as a young man concerned with personal feelings of alienation—got caught up in questions that would later become irrelevant. On this account, Marx’s later work represents an ‘epistemic break’ from his earlier work; Marx moves from the vague realm of metaphysics into the precise world of science.
The most notable proponent of this argument was Louis Althusser. In his seminal 1965 collection of essays For Marx he writes:
[I]f we are prepared to stand back a little from Marx’s discovery so that we can see that he founded a new scientific discipline and that this emergence itself was analogous to all the great scientific discoveries of history, we must also agree that no great discovery has ever been made with out bringing to light a new object or a new domain, without a new horizon of meaning appearing, a new land in which the old images and myths have been abolished—but at the same time the inventor of this new world must of absolute necessity have prepared his intelligence in the old forms themselves, he must have learnt and practised them, and by criticizing them formed a taste for and learnt the art of manipulating abstract forms in general, without which familiarity he could never have conceived new ones with which to think the new object. (Althusser 1965, p85.)
Althusser dismisses the young Marx as naïve man caught in the trappings of outmoded philosophical idealism—and contrasts him with the mature Marx the scientist and objective theory of History and Communism. If we accept this interpretation, the theory of alienation slips into the background—an embarrassing product of an immature and underdeveloped mind.
Despite the fact that Althusser dismisses the idea of ‘commodity fetishism’ as a product of the pre-scientific Marx and replaces it with his own theory of ideological apparatuses (Althusser 1970), some claim that the notion of commodity fetishism is a viable anthropological theory that can be deployed by Catholics in defence of the natural law. This is supported by the fact that, although the notion of alienation is dropped in his mature work, Marx nevertheless discusses commodity fetishism. In his Capital he explains it as such:
As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (Marx 1870, p165).
Here we see more echoes of Feuerbach. But only by analogy. Marx is no longer discussing the psychological or metaphysical phenomenon of alienation. Instead he is highlighting the fact that the highly abstract social relations that capitalism gives rise to lead to a mystification of the production process and hence of the nature of society. In turn, this gives rise to an ideology, a false consciousness, that tricks Man in capitalist society to think that his lot is a natural one and not the product of political forces that can be altered. This is not metaphysics, but anthropology.
But is it good anthropology? Again, Marx’s theory sounds good from a high theoretical level but when we start to think it through it becomes a little muddy. And again, the questions that we raised about alienation rise to the surface, albeit in different form. If Man is told clearly the actual relations of production, will he instantly recognise them as unjust and rebel against the system? Certainly, if Marxists are told what Marx thinks to be the relations of production they will come to this conclusion—there is plenty of historical evidence in favour of that proposition—but it does not follow that everyone comes to this same conclusion. Many have studied Marx’s work and concluded that the capitalist relations of production are, if not ideal, at least a best approximation of how to organise a functional society. Others have concluded that these relations are deeply flawed, but that this does not mean the whole system need be overthrown – rather they should be ameliorated by the State. The point is that, even with Marx’s critique laid out, it is not obvious that one accepts it as true as one might a mathematical demonstration. It has, embedded within it, more than a few value judgements – not just on the utility of capitalism but also on the prudence of revolutionary social change.
From this perspective, Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism is not neutral anthropology. Rather it is a statement that we are only likely to accept if we accept Marx’s broader vision—that is—if we ourselves are socialists or communists. It is also slightly dubious. Take the former Soviet Union as an example—whether the Soviet system was a true socialist economy or not, it was certainly not capitalist. Relations of production in the Soviet Union were extremely opaque— ‘plans’ were handed down by the Gosplan without much explanation. Most people, it would be fair to say, experienced the arbitrariness of Actually Existing Socialism as utterly mystifying—especially when a triple order of toilet paper arrived but no soup. Does it therefore follow that the centrally planned economic system, in the manner it produced and distributed commodities, provided ideological cover for the system? This seems unlikely. In fact, it was the opaqueness and dysfunction of the system that led citizens to look across the West jealously at the societies of abundance. If anything, the opaqueness and dysfunction generated cynicism and opposition to the system.
Yet, if Marx’s account is right, why does commodity fetishism ‘work’ in the relatively functional capitalist economies, but not in the dysfunctional centrally planned economies? After all, the same mechanism of opaqueness of production relations exists in both. Yet they generate different responses. Under capitalism, most of the time, most people accept the system as relatively natural. Yet under Really Existing Socialism people had a lingering sense that the system was dysfunctional and performed poorly in comparison with the Western capitalist systems. The more we think about it the stranger and less convincing Marx’s account is, even on its own terms. Again, it sounds good when stated theoretically—but when applied it becomes vague and strange.
What about its relation to Catholic thought? Certainly, Catholic thought is sympathetic to the idea that people should have more immediate control over their lives, including in their economic relations. It states this in its principal of subsidiarity. But it certainly does not call for the overthrow of markets or capitalism. Rather its response to this problem has been one of corporatism; of the organisation of society into empowered corporate entities that gain some modicum of control over blind market forces.
As with Catholic thought’s description of alienation as arising from Sin, this comes across as much more in line with common sense. It is not hard to see how the Catholic policymaker gets from A to B. Without the ‘corporations,’ the capitalist system is bewildering and punitive. But after they are introduced it is tamed to the needs of the community. This is much more specific than Marx’s vague notion that an imprecisely defined ‘communism’ will overcome the opaqueness of the system—and it makes no grandiose claims that the opaqueness of the system is fooling people into not joining the Church and becoming virtuous. Indeed, the idea that people are not joining the Church because of the opacity of economic relations comes across as so ridiculous as to be funny— but it is functionally equivalent to what Marxists are claiming when they claim that the only reason that the masses do not join the Marxist revolution is due to the opacity of economic relations.
Finally, we will turn to the post-Marxist left. Although no Catholic thinkers are counselling that we embrace the postmodern theories of desire and identity, there may be something interesting there that some have missed.
Desire and Pleasure, or Post-Marxist Politics
Defining the post-Marxist left is not altogether easy. It encompasses everything from identity politics to the sexual revolution. It encompasses thinkers as broad as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan. In what follows we will stick with two key thinkers, Michel Foucault and Giles Deleuze, as these best articulated the goals and methods of their politics. This is not to dismiss other thinkers. Lacanian neo-Marxists, for example, have drawn on Lacan’s theory of alienation as being superior to Hegel’s and integrated it into a post-Althusserian Marxism that reintegrates something resembling metaphysical critiques. These are interesting, albeit flawed from a Catholic perspective for the same reason that Marx’s original alienation theory is flawed. But Foucault and Deleuze articulate the politics that we see on the left today in the most concise manner.
Foucault and Deleuze, in their respective ways, shift the focus away from the production process as such and onto what they think to be a repressive society that suppresses the best tendencies—the true desires—of the individual. We are back, therefore, to the pre-Hegelian Romantics. It does not take long for them to find behind the curtain the oppressive figure of the priest. We are back, once more, to Feuerbach.
Foucault and Deleuze view society as a collection of institutions that repress individuals and force them to conform. Foucault is more inclined to examine institutions that are overtly punitive—the school, the hospital, the prison; while Deleuze is more inclined to examine institutions that shape the culture—most notably, psychotherapeutic intervention. But both recognise that the real repressive tool is morality. They argue that morality did not disappear after the Enlightenment destroyed religion but, rather, snuck in through the backdoor into social science and psychology and deployed via social and political institutions.
Foucault is quite explicit about this return to morality and ethics in his review of Deleuze’s book Anti-Oedipus, co-authored with Felix Guattari:
I would say that Anti-Oedipus (may its authors forgive me) is a book of ethics, the first book of ethics to be written in France in quite a long time (perhaps that explains why its success was not limited to a particular ‘readership’: being anti-oedipal has become a life style, a way of thinking and living) (Deleuze & Guattari 1972, pxiii).
Here we get the gist of the whole project. The revolution is not so much about changing society as of changing oneself. True, the institutions that are not allowing oneself to self-actualise must be destroyed —and in that sense society must be changed—but the focus is on oneself, on lifestyle. Post-Marxist leftism is a lifestyle leftism. In this it is much closer to religion than the old Marxist framework. This is because it is much more about cultivating a sort of anti-morality; a rejection of all moralities and the following of the raw, unstructured instinct.
It is not surprising then that these thinkers eventually find at the root of the contemporary pseudo-scientific morality the Christian – and indeed, Catholic – morality of old. They set their work up as an opposition to this. Foucault jokes about this in his introduction: “Paying a modest tribute to Saint Francis de Sales, one might say that Anti-Oedipus is an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life (ibid).” In his later work Foucault became obsessed with the old Jesuitical ethical manuals, especially those that dealt with the confessional—which he saw as a prototype of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic repression. He also found this type of subjectivity—which he defines as the problem that creates alienated social beings—to have been invented by St Augustine (Harcourt 2019).
Foucault and Deleuze are, in more ways than one, completely correct. They are not so much a repudiation of the Catholic tradition as an attempt to turn it on its head. For that reason, they are much closer to the Catholic thought tradition than is Marx. They understand that the key question is a moral one—to what extent society is organised in line with the natural law. But for them, the natural law is oppressive and the source of misery, whereas for Catholics it is liberationist and the source of contentment. Where St Augustine tells of his decadent lifestyle, the misery it brought him, and his finding of peace in God, Foucault and Deleuze tell us that peace in God is an illusion and that St Augustine would be much better off pursuing his carnal desires.
How they come to this conclusion is mystifying. Neither seemed like a happy man. Foucault died from AIDs and Deleuze from suicide. For all the talk of self-actualisation in their work, it seems that the lady doth protest too much and the writing is really flowing from a deep unhappiness and personal alienation. One suspects that their politics does not really have the goal of flourishing but instead of self-destruction. They are the theorists of decadence and death because they are decadent and death-oriented. Since no one succeeded in talking them out of this, they tried to convince others to follow them—and called on the destruction of Western Christian society. The story of the post-Marxist left is the story of the snake in the garden.
Yet for all that, integralists have much to learn from these thinkers. Since they are dealing with the same problem as integralists—namely, the moral regulation of the Good Society—their tactics and critiques only need to be flipped over to be useful. Where they implore transgression, integralists simply implore moral restraint and regulation. Where they implore the pursuit of instinctual satisfaction, integralists warn of the dangers of such libertinism and catalogue its effects. Where they call for post-1968 libertarian ‘liberation’, integralists point out that the only true freedom is freedom from one’s whims and desires. The key project for integralists when it comes to leftist thought should not be trying to repurpose Marx’s dubious concepts, but rather turning the post-Marxist left on its head.
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Clarke, V. (2019). ‘Jordan Peterson: Shepard of the Easily Freudened.’ American Affairs Journal.
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 Interestingly, this important sentence, taken from JB Baillie’s 1910 edition of the Phenomenology, is left out of the popular 1977 AV Miller translation. Yet in his introduction Miller discusses Hegel’s concept of alienation nine times. A strange discrepancy, as he obviously finds the category very important to Hegel’s thought.
See, for example: (Chen & VanderWeele 2018).
See: (Durkheim 1897).
 The Hegelian prescription bubbles up constantly in our society. Recently it has found expression in the popular figure of Jordan Peterson. See, Clarke (2019).
 In brief, this neo-Marxism posits that alienation is overcome simply by taking part in the revolution. See: (Badiou 1982). A cruel critic would say that the neo-Marxists have moved from Hegelian psychotherapeutic intervention to post-Lacanian group therapeutic intervention—and such a cruel critic would see those criticisms confirmed if they ever went to the embarrassing self-help spectacle that is a post-1968 radical leftist meeting.