R. R. Reno pens a stirring and profound analysis of the progressive impulses of modernist political ideology. Is it the belief in a just God who will bring about a transformation of society that is a fantasy? Or is it the belief that if my political ideology at last held power, that things would at last be righted?
Human societies have seen riots, palace coups, conspiracies, and civil wars for centuries. I’m not concerned to dispute the magnificence of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but it was really on old-fashioned conspiracy for control of the levers of power. In contrast, the civil war that put the ax to the neck of King Charles a few decades earlier was the first modern revolution. The Roundheads wanted power so as to perfect society. Their project was to redeem rather than reform, and that ambition expresses the essence of modern revolution. It is not simply the desire to control or even reform society but rather to remake it from the ground up, and to do so on principles that will guarantee purity. We often use this dream, [Simone] Weil suggests, to dull the pains of our existence.
How does the narcotic work? Weil was an austere Augustinian. She saw the human person as animated by a deep need for the spiritual. We are hardwired for worship, but this impulse toward the divine is blunted, redirected, and frustrated by our loyalty to finite goods that we falsely imagine will make us happy. We feel the lure of the divine, but it comes to us as a threat, for we must untangle ourselves from our love of the world in order to love God. We are torn: God calls us to ourselves, but we don’t want to hear. As much as our restless hearts desire God, we want as much or more to remain loyal to our present perverted selves.
By and large, modern men and women do not think of themselves in theological terms. Instead, we tend to moralize our existential anguish. The voice of conscience calls us to moral truth, but our investment in self-satisfaction stands in the way. We want to do the right thing, but we also want to satisfy our desires. We know ourselves called to serve moral truth, but we also nurture an inner rebellion that wishes to maintain the dominion of other, more self-serving loyalties. Thus the painful reality of human life, for when we rebel against conscience, we wage war against ourselves, as St. Paul points out in Romans 7:14–20.
The signature fantasy of modernity involves transferring the struggle for righteousness from the spiritual and moral to the material and political realm. We want to believe that the spiritual sickness that afflicts us is a function of some sort of social injustice: a lack of economic opportunity, racial or ethnic or gender discrimination, inequalities of status or education or income. We think that the glamour of evil rests in its current manifestations. If capitalism permits unjust exploitation, then away with the marketplace! Rousseau was the great theorist of this impulse. Since he thought that our pride and greed and self-accusing guilt stem from a social system built on hierarchical relations, he urged us to remake our social world so that all citizens are of equal standing. That this cultural revolution would require the destruction of all existing social institutions other than the state gave him little pause.
Faced with the painful inner struggle for righteousness, the dream of revolution can be irresistible. In fact, revolution symbolizes the deep psychological appeal of all leftist ideologies: to redirect the demands of conscience away from oneself and turn them into an aggressive, activist political agenda. An ersatz virtue—having the politically correct opinions—takes the place of real virtue. A grand political act, more often dreamt than performed, provides a rush of pseudo-moral rectitude. This is why socialism, so discredited by history, continues to exercise charm over the West. The drug of moral purpose made external and collective is hard to resist.