The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, February 10, 2006

On first looking into Hays' Aurelius

'The translation doesn't shrink from anachronism (there's talk of atoms)' - Blake Morrison reviews the Meditations, translated by Gregory Hays.
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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Progressive Rage

Did you know that Darwinism is propagated by an international Jewish conspiracy? Me neither, until The Protocols of the Elders of Zion set me straight. It's the only thing I remember from it. Even skimming it is like listening to a saloon-bar bore in hell. As a forbidden book the Protocols are a disappointment. More people must have got to the end of Mein Kampf.

Anti-semitism, said Bebel and Engels, is the socialism of fools. The rage of the small property holder - the peasant, the artisan, the stall-keeper - against his inexorable ruin by the competition of bigger capital is given a face and a race to hate: a physical particularity that stands in thought for the abstractions of 'finance' and 'the market' and 'the banks'. 'The Jew' becomes the concrete embodiment (in fantasy) of exchange value. So goes the Marxist tale, anyway, though it has many more subtle twists than that.

Is there another hatred that might be called 'the liberalism of fools'? The progressivism of fools? The libertarianism of fools? If anti-semitism is, in an important aspect, a rage against the machine, against progress, is there an opposite rage: a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition? A rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned, against what is solid and doesn't melt into air, against ways of life that resist commodification, against use-value that refuses to become exchange-value? And might that rage too need a fantasy object?

In the 1930s and 40s, a number of progressive intellectuals found that object in the Roman Catholic Church. Granted all the good reasons there were, in that age of the dictators, for identifying the RC Church with militant reaction, the fury seems oddly disproportionate. H. G. Wells's wartime Penguin Special Crux Ansata starts with the cry 'Bomb Rome!' and goes on from there. Another, more measured, is Avro Manhattan's The Catholic Church Against the Twentieth Century - a title that, if you saw it on the cover of a book published now, might lead you to expect a paen to the papacy.

Some of the staunchest and stubbornest admirers of Stalin weren't Communists or fellow-travellers, but liberal rationalists. The immensely influential and prolific Joseph McCabe was a genuine liberal, now unjustly neglected, and he had no truck with Communism, but for him Stalin as an anti-clerical atheist was a comrade. McCabe had a warm regard for the anti-Communist and secularising dictator Kemal Ataturk for similar reasons. McCabe's enthusiasm for the grandeurs of classical Islam and the splendour of Moorish Spain was in part to compare and contrast them with what he considered - and documented - as the wretched record of Christianity. McCabe might be caustic about the later Caliphate, but his fiercest ire was reserved for Rome.

Rationalist anti-Catholicism wasn't equivalent to anti-Semitism. The rationalists whose works fill a shelf or two of Thinker's Library hardbacks behind me were no bigots. In their scope and verve they were true heirs of the Encyclopaedists. They delighted in controversy with their (likewise intellectually substantial) Catholic and other Christian opponents, and their contributions still confound and fortify today. Their works await rediscovery in dusty second-hand bookshops and forgotten library stacks.

But still, there it was: a religion identified with reaction, and progressives with a blind spot about a powerful state that they saw as that religion's most formidable foe. The pro-Soviet because anti-Catholic position lost ground after the Twentieth Congress and Vatican II, but persisted here and there. Most consequently in Official Sinn Fein, which in its later incarnation as the Workers Party managed to be more pro-Soviet and more anti-clerical than the Irish Communists; and most frivolously in the 1980s rants of Julie Burchill about the virtues of the Russians and the iniquities of the Papists. Avro Manhattan in the 1970s was still writing books such as Catholic Terror Today and Catholic Terror in Ireland, the burden of which was that the Provos were a new Ustashe, and that Ireland's Protestants faced a future Jasenovac. He may have been the only militant atheist the Rev. Ian Paisley ever smiled at. (The photo graces the book.)

But aside from such quaint spectacles, anti-Catholicism is gone as a burning-glass of progressive rage.

One wonders what new lens might focus that rage now. Is there some religion or people that has come to represent all that is backward in the world, and in need of a sound and salutary thrashing from the forces of progress? Orthodoxy, perhaps? Zoroastrianism? Tibetan Buddhism? Hinduism? None of them seem to quite fit the bill. There must be one out there somewhere. Because the rage still burns.
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