Plumb Lines

April 1, 2009

Radicalism against Revolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:52 am

Over at the comments section of my recent post on urbanism there’s the germ of a discussion about what the proper response to modernity should be from those of us who are dissatisfied with it. Mindful of James Poulos’ advice to young, smart bloggers to look away from each passing hapless meme and direct their eyes metawards, I advance a thesis that I hope will establish this discussion on more permanent ground:

Radicalism must eschew revolution. Radicalism, as I understand it, is a position structured to articulate orthogonally with the structure of the age — or more correctly obliquely, for it is not enough for radicals merely to say ‘no’ when the age says ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ when it says ‘no.’ I’m not sure if some established position — say,  orthodox Christian faith — is a precondition for radicalism. It is clear that these established positions do serve a very useful negative dialectical function, subjectively, in allowing the individual radical to think in paths other than those trod by her contemporaries. (And walk in them, too! there is surely such a thing as a purely non-mental radicalism devoted to oblique bodily habits. The way you rise from a chair can be the most important thing about you, as Huxley said in Eyeless in Gaza. In fact, radicalism that does not ground itself in the criticism of the mutely material against intellectual systems as such endorses all the philosophical offspring of Descartes even as it condemns them.) It might be the case, though, that a thorough commitment to transgression as such would suffice.

Revolution, as anti-liberals have been saying for centuries, is historically a tool for disrupting the inertia of illiberal order. Of course revolution’s promise of a Novus Ordo is always exaggerated, but insofar as that promise is fulfilled — that is, insofar as the revolution is successful — what’s discarded in the old order is what conduces to resistance against bureaucratic rationalization. I need hardly mention that the clubbiness of 1790 led eventually to Orleans [see below], that the Paris Commune led to the Third Republic, that the Russian Revolution produced the most monstrously bureaucratic state yet to profane history, and that the sexual revolution redounded chiefly to the benefit of industry.

The proper radical response to modernity works by slow and careful measures, by painstaking discovery and rejection of falsehood. The task is to make yourself oblique enough to become a martyr. That liberal bureaucratic capitalism does not produce martyrs regularly is evidence only that being a thoroughgoing radical is very difficult.

QUALIFICATION: “the clubbiness of 1790 led eventually to Orleans” is a little blithe. I am told there was this fellow Bonaparte. I withdraw the assertion and point to Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, which describes what happened to the club system without sacrificing historical nuance wholesale.

APPENDIX: Since there are some conservatives on this blog (though no real Burkeans, I pray), I add that the difference between Burke and MacIntyre on tradition is that Burkean conservatism is inertial and merely anti-revolutionary but MacIntyrean “conservatism” is radical.

David Schaengold


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