Dialogue with a Catholic Leftist

When the Manifesto of the Tradinistas came out I noted that while I agree with their critique of liberalism— and indeed with most of their political positions— I would never consider myself a Tradinista on account of the cultural and historical associations that they embrace. In other words, I would never consider myself a “leftist.” But what exactly does it mean to be a leftist? I recently had a discussion with Coëmgenus on that question that made me understand more clearly what the Tradinistas mean by it, and where I differ from them. With Coëmgenus’s permission, I reproduce a slightly abridged version of our discussion below.

Coëmgenus: People use the word “left” to mean very stupid things.

Sancrucensis: What should “left” be used to mean?

Coëmgenus: I use “left” to mean the inclusion of social questions and questions of production within the realm of the political. So that a distributist who was sufficiently attentive to these things (and did not imply that they were to be solved extrapolitically through spiritual conversion alone) would count as “left” in my book. I give no credence to the idea of a “cultural left”; I see that as the fantasy of certain capitalists who want to wash their hands of certain capitalist problems.

Sancrucensis: Hmm, by your definition, Coëmgenus, Fascists are leftists.

Coëmgenus: Sort of. That’s the critique that’s often made of them by market liberals anyway. But I should probably add that leftism requires that, once one takes such an analytical approach, one tries to rectify differences in class power (ideally by neutralizing distinctions of class) — most fascists seem to have been more concerned to direct labor to some national end than to protect laborers as a class. What some reactionary critics of fascism notice is that fascism does not hesitate to use the rhetoric of helping the common man, but in practice I think this is just for show. The Trump business with Carrier seems like a fine example.

Sancrucensis: I think the addition is helpful. Leftists not only see economic power as a political question, but also think that inequality of economic power is per se unjust/exploitative. This is understandable given that they are reacting to a capitalist society in which the unbalance of economic power is unjust. To me, on the hand, a social order is conceivable with a highly gradational distribution of economic power, but in which economic activity would be subordinated to the genuine common good of the whole society, rather than to the private good of the class that has the most economic power. A corollary to my claim about the possibility of a mixed regime with an extremely hierarchical distribution of political power, but fully ordered to the common good. The leftist position seems to still accept to much of the liberal ideal. It’s democratic checks and balances applied to economy. Or as Comrade Stalin put it:

Bourgeois constitutions usually confine themselves to stating the formal rights of citizens, without bothering about the conditions for the exercise of these rights, about the opportunity of exercising them, about the means by which they can be exercised. They speak of the equality of citizens, but forget that there cannot be real equality between employer and workman, between landlord and peasant, if the former possess wealth and political weight in society while the latter are deprived of both – if the former are exploiters while the latter are exploited. Or again: they speak of freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, but forget that all these liberties may be merely a hollow sound for the working class, if the latter cannot have access to suitable premises for meetings, good printing shops, a sufficient quantity of printing paper, etc.

What distinguishes the draft of the new Constitution is the fact that it does not confine itself to stating the formal rights of citizens, but stresses the guarantee of these rights, the means by which these rights can be exercised. It does not merely proclaim equality of rights for citizens, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that the regime of exploitation has been abolished, to the fact that the citizens have been emancipated from all exploitation. It does not merely proclaim the right to work, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that there are no crises in Soviet society, and that unemployment has been abolished. It does not merely proclaim democratic liberties, but legislatively ensures them by providing definite material resources. It is clear, therefore, that the democratism of the draft of the new Constitution is not the “ordinary” and “universally recognized” democratism in the abstract, but Socialist democratism.

Coëmgenus: The Stalin quote is good enough as far as it goes. I would not say (differing here from many leftists) that leftism is about eliminating inequality, but about making it subject to politics. This could be the same as your view — a hierarchy in which everything is subordinated to the common good. But most reactionaries who defend hierarchy this way end up wanting parts of the hierarchy to be sui juris — they will admit eg. that the great landowners have a duty to serve the common good, but will either imply that they serve it best through glorifying their houses, or that this duty cannot be enforced by a bunch of filthy peasants. For “a subject and a sovereign are clear different things”. I have no interest in complete equality (both on account of its impossibility and on account of the critique of proceduralism to which you allude), but I hate an inequality that exempts anyone from answering to the common good. In feudalism as practiced, economic power was explicitly articulated through the state (less liberal than in our polity), but each community tended to be put at the service of the private good of the noble personage in charge of it — of course this story is much complicated by the existence of monastic holdings.  

One last thing: checks and balances as such are not bad; this is why I support labor unionism, for example. Not because it’s a guarantee of welfare, but because it addresses what seems to be a frequent failure of negotiation. The error is not to have a procedure but to put one’s hopes for justice in procedure alone.

Sancrucensis:  I agree that checks and balances are not bad in themselves; the “mixed” regime with democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements is best. But I think it important that checks and balances don’t tip the regime so far over that one loses the goods of obedience, political piety etc. It is quite true that sovereign and subject are two different things. Even in a democracy there will always be a part that rules and part that is ruled. But in democracy the ruling part has to conceal this fact, and pretend that it is ruling merely as an instrument of the sovereign people. And therefore the goods that are considered most important in a democracy are “vulgar” goods, and the type of human being taken to be the measure is the so-called “common man”. (Leo Strauss has a great discussion of this in ch. 4 of Natural Right and History). In a liberal democracy the ruling part is an oligarchy that rules in the name of the common man, but really for the private advantage of the capitalists. In a “socialist” state it is usually a vanguard party that considers itself to be preparing a post-political future, but really functions as an inefficient oligarchy. So I still think the best solution is one in which the democratic checks and balances are considered secondary, and the greater part of political power is in the hands of an hereditary monarch and an hereditary aristocracy. The hereditary aristocracy should be composed of a landed gentry that is at the same time an urban patriciate (to use Strauss’s terms again)— that is of “gentlemen” who derive their income from the land, but live for part of the year in the city.  Such an aristocracy can of course become corrupt, and seek its own private advantage. But historical experience shows that such an aristocracy— especially when tempered by the monarchical and democratic elements— can cultivate an ethos of true public spirit, and an appreciation for noble goods: for civic friendship and military virtue, for art and philosophy. To the extent that they really pursue such goods they contribute to the common good of every member of the society. To the extent to which natural virtue can dispose men well towards supernatural virtue, I think such a regime does prepare men well for the life of the Church, and conversely the Church can have an ennobling and moderating effect on such an order.

Coëmgenus: I simply cannot imagine an aristocracy that does not degenerate into a faction. The aristocracies of Europe were born as a kind of mafia, and seem to have discovered the common good as a last-ditch effort to win some support when the bourgeoisie was finally about to wipe them out. “Popular sovereignty” can be an idol, but whoever rules rules on behalf of the whole community, and is in a sense their delegate.

The classical throne-and-altar view is that an aristocracy ought to rule while the commoners pray pay and obey, so that the common people are not troubled by the demands of political life. Against that ideal, I want to maintain that the subject never ceases to be a citizen. It is not my vote that creates the common good: even a purely autocratic system is not inevitably unjust. But if I am part of a community its political life is very much my business.