A group with the strange name Tradinista has published a manifesto, and a defense of Catholic “socialism” in three parts (part I, part II, part III). To understand the background of the tradinistas it is helpful to look back at Patrick Deneen’s 2014 essay in The American Conservative, A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching. Deneen argued that the really interesting controversy among American Catholics is not that between “liberals” and “conservatives,” but rather between two sorts of Catholics who could both be termed “conservative” in the conventional sense: firmly believing in Catholic doctrine and staunchly pro-life. On the one hand Deneen put “neoconservatives” such as George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, who followed the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., in proclaiming the compatibility of Catholicism and liberal democracy. On the other hand he described a group of “radical” Catholics, followers of Alasdair MacIntyre and David L. Schindler. The “radical” Catholics, Deneen writes, “[reject] the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible.” Liberalism, they claim is not the value-neutral procedural framework that its proponents would have us to believe. Rather it is the political and cultural embodiment of certain substantive philosophical views. Liberalism bases itself on an individualistic view of human beings, in which political and social community of all kinds are formed by voluntary— as it were contractual— agreement of sovereign individuals. The radical Catholics thus claim that liberalism is fundamentally at odds with Catholicism, which holds rather that human persons are,
by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.
In response to Deneen, Rusty Reno argued that for all practical intents and purposes there need be no quarrel between the two camps. Michael Hannon (now Frater Urban, O.Praem.) responded in turn to Reno, argued that there were indeed practical consequences to the difference: “Traditionalists and neoconservatives don’t just disagree theoretically about where we’ve come from; they disagree practically about where we ought to be going.” Neoconservatives wish to restore the American constitutional order by paring back an over-reaching government, and reversing the legalization of abortion and homosexual “marriage,” and securing religious liberty to enable the Church to flourish. But “traditionalists” think that abortion and the erosion of marriage are merely symptoms of the fundamental flaws of liberalism, that capitalist business is much a threat as over-reaching government, that the bourgeois nuclear family is as unnatural as a political society of 300 millions, and that as for religious liberty, “it could never be enough—and would never work anyway—to have a radically pluralistic citizenry with a religiously indifferent state that merely gives us Catholics space to live out our eccentric faith together in private.”
Note that in Hannon’s response the “radicals” all of the the sudden become “traditionalists.” This requires some explanation. The “radicals” whom Deneen mentions would not consider themselves to be “traditionalists” in the ordinary sense. David Schindler in his masterpiece Heart of the World, Center of the Church rejects traditionalist “integralism” every bit as much as neoconservative liberalism. As Gabriel Sanchez pointed out, “radicals,” who tend to take their bearings from the nouvelle theologie, and “traditionalists” or “integralists,” who tend to look more to earlier magisterial condemnations of liberalism, both oppose liberal individualism, but in slightly different ways.
As I argued at length in my essay “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy,” the differences between neoconservatism (or “Whig Thomism”), Catholic radicalism (or “radical Augustinianism”), and traditionalism (or “integralism”) can be understood as being rooted in different understandings of the relation of nature and grace. Neoconservatism separates nature and grace too much, putting too much emphasis on the “autonomy” of the natural order, thus allowing for an affirmation of the secular, liberal state. Catholic radicalism tends to absorb nature too much into grace, leading in the direction of a sort of anarchism that denies the legitimacy of earthly power. But traditionalism, properly understood, preserves both the distinction of nature and grace, and the subordination of the natural to the supernatural, in a way consistent with the perennial Tradition of the Church, which has always affirmed both the distinction of temporal and spiritual power and the subordination of the former to the later.
There is, however, another way of distinguishing the three positions— not in terms of substantive theological disagreement, but in terms of historical and cultural associations and (as it were) aesthetic sensibilities and tastes. If the neoconservative position is associated with a positive affirmation of bourgeois culture, the radical and traditionalist positions attack bourgeois culture from different angles. Traditionalists are rooted in the traditions of aristocratic contempt for the bourgeoisie, whom they saw as destroying the Christian civilization of the Middle Ages and replacing it with the base, oppressive, and mechanical civilization of capitalism, a solvent of all traditional bonds. Their aim was historically the restoration of the old order. Radicals on the other hand, are rooted in the tradition of “radical” intellectual opposition to bourgeois civilization. Their aim was a proletarian revolution against capital. In reality, almost all radical intellectuals were not themselves from the working class, but were members of the bourgeoisie who had rejected the values and culture of their own class, and invented the rather odd and guilt-ridden cultural sensibility of the so-called avant-garde.
Of course, despite their different cultural sensibilities, traditionalists and radicals were united by similar critiques of bourgeois, liberal capitalism. Marx and Engles admit as much in their contemptuous description of “feudal socialism” and “clerical socialism” in ch. III of The Communist Manifesto:
In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history. […] In pointing out that their mode of exploitation was different to that of the bourgeoisie, the feudalists forget that they exploited under circumstances and conditions that were quite different and that are now antiquated. […] As the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord, so has Clerical Socialism with Feudal Socialism. Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.
As I have argued in the past, I think that Marx’s dismissal of “reactionary” socialism was based in part on false presuppositions: on an atheism and egalitarianism that reject any hierarchical order and subordination in society as per se unjust. Nevertheless, Marx was right to point out that the development of technological civilization poses a grave problem for any attempt at reactionary restoration. There is a kind ratchet effect to modern technological developments that render many restorationist projects unrealistic. Hence the attempt of many reactionary socialists to develop new models of society inspired by medieval Christendom, but modified to try to deal with the effects of technological development. Such projects must begin with an understanding of our existing society, and I think that David Pederson has made a good case for the usefulness of Marx’s analysis in understanding technological civilization in order better to combat it.
But, to return to the Tradinistas, in his letter responding to Reno on Deneen, Hannon made the following remark:
My vantage point is obviously limited, but it might surprise some readers to learn that most practicing Catholics I know in my “millennial” generation also tend toward traditionalism. While individually we might have a great deal of respect for some prominent neocon culture warriors, still we think that as a school of thought and a model of public Christianity, they are deeply wrong. From where we’re standing, there seems to be no way forward along the path they’ve charted. I bring this up not to sway undecided readers to our hip, youthful view of things, or some such nonsense, but simply to show that this in-house Catholic dispute isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. On the contrary, it’s just getting started.
Some of these young friend’s of Hannon’s founded The Josias a while back. The Josias has tended to espouse an unabashedly traditionalist, integralist position with its concomitant historical/cultural associations and aesthetic sensibility. Tradinista was founded by a partially overlapping group, but one that seems to represent a new combination. In their positions the Tradinistas espouse many of the theses that flow from an integralist understanding of the relation of nature and grace. Hence the Manifesto insists, “The essence of government is to lead citizens to virtue and societies to the highest of the natural common goods.” And, “Political authority ought to promote the teachings of the Church.” There is no hint of Catholic anarchism here. And yet, in identifying themselves as “socialist” and “leftist” the Tradinistas are embracing the historical associations and cultural sensibilities of Catholic radicalism.
I was involved in The Josias early on, and I have also participated in the discussions of the Tradinistas (discussions recently described by Matthew Schmitz). The Tradinistas allow me to take part in their discussions even though I do not consider myself a socialist or a leftist of any kind, and consequently will not call myself a Tradinista. But I reject their label more for reasons of cultural and historical associations than because of their actual positions. I would quibble with some points of the Manifesto, but for the most part I think it is a solid critique of liberalism. But I will never, ever call myself by a name tarnished by the historical socialist movements, whose most powerful branch was founded on a demonic rebellion against God in the name of a false idol of human dignity (read the preface to Marx’s doctoral dissertation to see a clear statement of the meaning of his “atheism”), and was directly responsible for the killing of millions of innocent persons. Nevertheless, I can understand the thrill that the Tradinistas fill at associated themselves with the forbidden word “socialist,” and their attraction to the stirring rhetoric against the oppression of the poor found in the best socialist writers. Some allowance also has to be made for the fact that they are Americans. America is almost wholly lacking in aristocratic traditions, and it is therefore understandable that some of the Tradinistas see the traditionalist integralists as “LARPers” (to use one of their expressions). I don’t agree with them on that, obviously, but that doesn’t prevent me from finding their discussions helpful. I think it is good to have both The Josias and Tradinista! as the different styles appeal to different audiences, and a Catholic critique of liberalism and its poisonous fruits can thus be more widely extended. If time allows, I shall try to contribute to both projects in future.