Comments about secular modernity, Karl Marx, John Ruskin, classical liberalism, capitalism and nationalism from David Bentley Hart (in conversation with Jason Micheli) on Episode 230 of the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast: David Bentley Hart— Once Upon a Time. This is my own transcription (used with permission but noting that all errors are my own):
The word socialism can evoke shivers of anxiety among Eastern Europeans as well because they’ll associate it with the rhetoric of the state communism that they labored under for so many decades. But on the whole, most nations, Western European nations, Canada …recognize that this is a word with a certain flexibility of connotations.
Christian socialism, I would point out, antedates Marxism. I’m not a great fan of Marx. The early Marx was something of a romantic—soaked in nostalgia for a sort of pristine world in which labor was not separate, was not alienated from the products of its hands. That Marx I like because he was still basically a pre-Raphaelite without realizing it. But the Marx who …wrote the last words of volume three of Das Kapital really is a man who wanted to turn the whole world into a factory. I mean, basically, he was no different from a corporatist capitalist. He just wanted one big corporation. If you look at what it actually says, he elevated labor over play, productivity, over leisure. …He becomes the ultimate capitalist by the end of Das Kapital. So yes, I thoroughly despise a fully developed Marxism, and I think it actually is to be blamed for the tyrannies of the Soviet period, that it was not a completely accidental alliance, that there is some real Marxist logic that went into creating the Soviet Union.
So what is socialism? Socialism is a much older, much broader, much wider tradition in Egnlish Christian thought and American Christian thought too. There was a form of socialism that, for one thing, doesn’t even have a political shape that we can recognize anymore. It was neither left nor right in our terms today. …The great father of Engilsh Christian socialism—not the first of them but the one who wrote the most compelling defences of the morality of Christian socialism—was John Ruskin, and he was an arch-Tory. He thought he was fighting against liberalism, what we would call classical liberalism. America, however, has two political parties that are classical liberal parties. John Stuart Mill could have invented either one of them depending on whether that day he was thinking in economic terms or social terms. The Republicans are Millian liberalism with an emphasis on his economics and presuming his liberatarian social theory. The Democrats are Millian liberalism emphasizing his social theory but excepting his free market economics. Their largely, in the grand scheme of things, indistinguishable from one another. The Christian socialist tradition, however, was a serious attempt to understand [the gospel]—not out of some nostalgia for a vanished golden age of Christian justice. (John Ruskin may have loved things medieval, but he understood the injustices of medieval society as well.) It was an attempt to take the gospel seriously, not only as some private morality to be crowded out of the public sphere into the realm of private fixation, but actually as a way of living together as an actual social picture of a real possible social ethos, a politics, a communal truth, a politics of love—one that …would be productive, that loved and even venerated labor and craft and trade but within a human framework not dominated by joint stock companies (as they had been called then and we would now call corporate structures) that reduce human beings to the commodity of labor and are devoted only to making a profit for their shareholders no matter what the cost either to workers or to the natural order or to society. To me there is no other politics that a Christian can adopt in the modern world without in some sense relinquishing one’s commitment to the gospel to some degree, and I really wish that Americans were not so neurostemically afraid of this word.
…There is this journal that you may know of: First Things. …The editorial staff has embraced the new nationalism or some form thereof. …They are so staggeringly unsophisticated in their analysis of the failures of liberal secularism that they don’t understand that nationalism is always and can only be the last terminal stage of the very modernity that they think that they are struggling against. …It’s tertiary syphilis. …It’s all based on, among other things, a handful of bad metaphors about boundarylessness. …One of my neighbors signed it, Patrick Deneen, and he should know better, but he doesn’t. …This is my complaint about First Things. I spent twenty years trying to convince them that economic and social liberalism are two manifestations of the same essentially voluntarist understanding of the good. …I threw around all of the inflammatory rhetoric about nihilism and how this differs from virtue ethics and elevating greed. I wrote against marriage of Christ and mammon and all that, and I was just always the sort of curmudgeonly eccentric. So along comes someone like Patrick Deneen and at the very moment that they are waking up to the fact that at least some of this critique might have had virtue but instead of going in the direction that I thought was the obvious alternative, which is the embrace of a kind of radical Christian ethos that recognizes the nation state and the corporation …as matasticies of certain vices that Christianity is meant to heal us of, they went to embrace nationalism on the grounds that boundarylessness is the problem. Of course it isn’t. …We have plenty of boundaries. …That’s basically what modernity is. It’s ever more narrowly opposed boundary until there is nothing left but the isolated consumer and the nation state and the dialectic between them. Modernity and the corporation, they love national boundaries and national sovereignty. They love labor markets split between the legal and the illegal, the foreign and the domestic, the wealthy and the poor. They thrive on national identity and division, and what Christianity preaches is a real universalism …in which the statement that there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, …man and woman, husband and wife …really is a political statement. …It’s about the breaking down of the boundary between Jew and Gentile, between law and nations. Instead of that understanding of just how radical Christianity is, how much it detaches us from loyalty to the nation state, to the folk, to the imperatives of the people, they’ve gone quite the opposite direction and basically allowed themselves to become patsies of the worst aspect of late modernity which is nationalism, the reductio ad absurdum of the modern project, or actually, let’s be honest, the reductio ad malum of the modern project. There is no nationalism that can be anything other than that.