Don Camillo and Peppone Reloaded: Father Brown and Comrade Slavoj [text]


Update (August 2017) – one text I have overlooked is the very good philosophical reflection on Žižek’s use of Chesterton’s allegorical story by George Fried ‘Where’s the Point: Zizek and the Broken Sword’. I agree with most of what he has to say and would probably have produced a much shorter piece which would have focused more on Father Brown’s methodology.


This post is not meant to be primarily a critique of Žižek, even though he occupies most of the space in it, but to use him as a contrast to bring out what is worth salvaging from Gilbert K. Chesterton’s form of thinking (though not much of its content). The work of deconstructing Žižek’s political rhetoric has already been done successfully by better writers. “Successfully”, that is, in terms of intellectual coherence and conclusiveness – less so in that Žižek still enjoys huge popularity among the academic Left. My favourite is Adam Kirsch’s 2008 ‘The Deadly Jester’ in The New Republic, despite some unjustified claims about the philosophical traditions Žižek draws on.
Further it should be noted that the parallel implied to the two heroes of Giovannino Guareschi’s Mondo Picolo finds its limit in the fact that both the Catholic priest and the Communist mayor are united in their unequivocal antifascism – which can be said of neither Chesterton (who was tempted by Mussolini) and nor Žižek (who congratulates Heidegger on joining the Nazi Party)

The BBC’s favourite “Marxist philosopher” Slavoj Žižek makes ample use of Father-Brown creator Gilbert K. Chesterton’s witticisms and stories in his grand project, the rehabilitation of the Western politico-metaphysical tradition from the Catholic Church to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[1] The title of his magnus opus in political theology In Defence of Lost Causes is taken from a chapter in Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World?  where Chesterton suggests that the ‘lost causes are exactly those which might have saved the world’Žižek draws heavily on Chesterton in his reading of Christianity, but the most important thing he gets out of Chesterton is the rhetorical tactic of contradicting obvious truths by way of paradoxical statement. But, while the paradoxes of Chesterton lend themselves to frivolously totalitarian abuse, I will argue that the contrast between the two could not be much greater.



a quick note on Chesterton (Father Brown) and Zizek (Heidegger, Stalin) [#withoutwords]



From Geneva to Moscow, via Manchester

The unacknowledged but pervasive tension and dishonest mingling of ultra-determinist historical materialism and hyperactive voluntarism/subjectivism has been shown to be a hallmark of the totalitarian turn in Leninism, Stalinism. According to Leo Kofler this particularly shows when things don’t go to plan

‚Das Hinüberschieben der Schuld für das Mißlingen der bürokratischen Pläne auf die Schulter von subversiven und renitenten Elementen, die von der Absicht besessen sind, den sozialistischen Aufbau zu stören, ist deshalb ein besonders interessantes Moment in der bürokratischen Ideologie, weil hier in vollstem Widerspruch zur mechanistischen, die Rolle des Subjektiven unterschätzenden Auffassung des Prozesses plötzlich und unvermittelt eine Überbetonung subjektiver Gegebenheiten zum Vorschein kommt. Ein solches Verfallen in kontradiktorische Extreme ist überhaupt charakteristisch für jedes nichtdialektische Denken.‘ (Kofler 1970: 64)

The assignment of guilt for the failure of bureaucratic plans to subversive and renitent elements possessed by a desire to undermine socialist development is a particularly interesting aspect in the bureaucratic ideology, because here – contradicting completely the mechanist view of history which underestimates the role of the subjective – suddenly and abruptly subjective factors are overrated. Falling into such contradictory extremes is characteristic of all non-dialectical thought

‘Non-dialectical’ here is to be understood as a view that is not capable to understand subjective factors as part of an objective reality and therefore objective reality as also constituted by subjective factors. While this was the starting position, in the Marxist tradition honest attempts to explain human freedom out of material conditions, rather than just conceding various degrees of influence (always asserting, of course, that ‘in the last consequence’, it’s material conditions that matter) are rare.

This non-dialectical approach has an unexpected ancestor in Calvinism. Sociologists tend to think of Jean Calvin as theologian whose world historical significance derives from the ironic consequences of his predeterminarianism on the mentality of early capitalist entrepreneurs, businessmen and workers. That excludes him from the ancestry of modern communism. Yet Calvin, spiritual leader of the moral commonwealth of Geneva, was a social revolutionary as well. And Calvinist Geneva – with its theocratic/republican rule and with its purges and show trials – was an inspiration to the English Puritan Revolutionaries under Cromwell. When Vladimir Putin recently justified his lack of enthusiasm for destructing Stalin statues by equating Stalin and Cromwell, he had a point despite the different scales of mass slaughter in the name of God and/or History.

Both in the Puritan and the Marxist-Leninist case we have ideologies that propose historical inevitability at the same time as understanding the realisation of what has been predetermined as a task to be carried out by individuals. Both currents saw themselves compelled to punish heretics and opponents in spectacular fashion, penalising them for what they could not help doing given their destined state as fallen or their historical role as class enemy. Compare Kofler’s statement on Stalinism to what the – sympathetic – biographer of Jean Calvin, Basil Hall has to say about the tension between predestination and the evil agency of Man:

If God is the principle of causation, is He not therefore the author of evil? God forbid, says Calvin, man sins not under the pressure of external constraint, but voluntarily, for his very nature leads him to sin, and, before God, men are none the less blameworthy since their nature is corrupt, and that is sufficient to condemn them. There is, however, a non sequitur here. Calvin has stated the metaphysical fact of divine causality at the heart of the universe, and then, when pressed to show where lies the origin of evil, he slips over into a psychological explanation: evil is willed by man, for it is his bias, and God is not concerned, save to use this evil disposition either to dominate it for His glory or as a means of punishment.’ (Hall 1956: 20f.)

It is tempting, but probably too farfetched, to liken the Marxist-Leninist triad of historical-materialist inevitability, authority of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin as its revelation, and Communist Party as its visible representation and agent in the world to the Calvinists doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the doctrine of the scripture and the doctrine of the church. Yet the task of the visible Church to persecute the ungodly mitigates the contradiction between predestined course of things and the human freedom to do evil in a similar way that the Party was to negotiate between the inevitable course of History and the inertia of the proletarians and the stubborn opposition of the class enemy.

‘Calvin was unique among Protestants in holding that the Church must manage her own affairs with the greatest possible independence of the temporal authority and yet maintain a real relation with that authority: he alone revived in Protestantism the old papal principle that the temporal and spiritual powers were like two swords in one sheath. New also was Calvin’s insistence on the Church’s public discipline for all members of the community and on the duty of the temporal authorities as Christian men to maintain this discipline even with legal penalties. This principle of discipline is the most characteristic element in Calvin’s Geneva: given the belief that God was sovereign, that man before God was nothing, and that to God was due all glory, it followed inevitably that all men must honour God in their doctrine and life – even if they have to be compelled to do so.’ (Hall 1956: 24f.)

The big question now is – what to make of this odd parallel. Is there an historical genealogy? This is unlikely beyond the notion that, according to Karl Löwith, modern historiography is very much a derivative of Christian soteriology, and Marxism is a theory that explicitly does not know any science but one: history. I would suggest looking for ironical links and elective affinities along similar lines as the Calvinist inspiration of capitalism. Could it not be that, as response to high capitalism of the Manchester variety, some of the soteriological traits not of Puritan theology but of capitalist praxis have seeped into the revolutionary superstructures of the Communist Party?

As Marx and Marxist theorists from Lukács to Adorno have exposed, the capitalist process presents itself as ahistorical, natural process, while at the same time presupposing a society of autonomous property-owning individuals. The counterfactual plausibility of this assumption can be gauged by looking at the readiness to accept, only a few years after yet another spectacular failure to predict a dramatic economic downturn, the forecasts and advice of economists. They are viewed like meteorologists – imprecisions and errors in the forecasts are not ascribed to the fact that as process constituted by human action “the economy” is fundamentally different from a physical process like the weather (although of course the meteorologists increasingly have to acknowledge the consequences of human action). It is all down to human error. Least of all reflected upon is the fact that the advice of economists themselves is an influence on economic and political action. That this is true for Marxist political economy has already been seen by Eduard Bernstein – and while the extent of influence of the works of economists like John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman on policymakers may be disputed, that there was such an influence is beyond doubt. The same social science that presents itself as analysis of a quasi-natural process also produces a priestly caste of spiritual guides advising on how to realise that natural process. A secular theology committed to a pair of mutually exclusive tenets of the quasi-natural, objective course of events in the reified hyper-subject “economy” and of full individual responsibility of economic subjects. The contradiction is solved undialectically yet elegantly: As harmony, balance and universal happiness are achieved by all individuals following their own (presumably naturally given) self-interest in a rational way by quasi-divine means (the market mechanism as invisible hand), there is a pre-established harmony between individual agency and historical process. Everybody getswhat they deserve – which is the same as everybody is what they earn.

What is more – the system can even stomach the fact that there are people who lack proper rationality or self-interest as they exclude themselves from the process and go to hell-on-earth, i.e. become penniless. It is only when the reprobate become too numerous that a more decisive counteraction is required – and then the total order of efficient production can be re-established by means of a Fascist apparatus.

Revolutionary Marxist leaders will have been exposed to the same impression of a natural process of economic development as anybody else, even though Marx’s work contains ample warnings against this optical illusion. The “vulgar economics” of which Marx spoke frequently found its mirror image in “vulgar Marxism” that interpreted the economic process of capital accumulation as taking a different course and producing different outcomes, but nonetheless reified it as an inevitable natural process nonetheless. And they can be forgiven as formulae like the one stating that capital transforms itself into an ‘automatic subject’ (Kapital verwandelt sich in ein automatisches Subjekt – the English version tones down to ‘assumes an automatically active character’) have beenmisunderstood as a structuralist credo by interpreters far from vulgar.

Against this background the possibility that there is a very zig-zaggy line from Calvinism-Cromwellism over enforcedly laissez-faire capitalism to Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism looks like a distinct possibility.


The 17th century Puritan Richard Baxter’s account of Cromwell strikes me as fascinatingly analoguous to orthodox Marxists critiques of Leninism: Instead of trusting in the predestined/determined course of events, Lenin/Trotsky/Stalin felt themselves destined to accelerate history. And instead of trusting God’s plan, Cromwell and allies

‘thought that God had called them by successes to govern and take care of the Commonwealth and of the interest of all his people in the land; and that if they stood by and suffered the parliament to do that which they thought was dangerous, it would be required at their hands, whom they thought God had made the guardians of the land. Having thus forced his conscience to justify all his cause (the cutting off the king, the setting up himself and his adherents, the pulling down the parliament and the Scots), he thinketh that the end being good and necessary, the necessary means cannot be bad.’ (Baxter 1974: 88)

Baxter, Richard (1974): The Autobiography of Richard Baxter  (Edited by N. H. Keeble), London: J.M. Dent

Hall, Basil (1956): John Calvin, London: Historical Association

Kofler, Leo (1970): Stalinismus und Bürokratie: Zwei Aufsätze, Neuwied: Luchterhand

base/superstructure 1 1/2: totalitarian tendencies in gramsci ?!?

In my previous post on Basis/Überbau I casually mention Gramsci’s totalitarian tendencies. This needs some further explanation, especially since I will use some aspects of his reconceptionalisation (as struttura/superstrutture) when arguing for the retention of this much maligned metaphor.

Gramsci tries to solve the old problem of dualism of base/superstructure (which he rejects as an instance of Croce misinterpreting Marx and Engels) and the related problem of simultaneity of determination “in the last instance” of the superstructure by the base on the one hand and the reality/efficacy of the superstructure which affects the base on the other. His solution is of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it type: he emphatically makes space for political and intellectual activity and assigns transformative powers to them while not giving up on ultimate determination by the development of the forces, modes and relations of production. I will (in a future post) argue that to make the theorem of base/superstructure productive it is crucial to resist this temptation of forging them into (in Gramsci’s terminology) an “historic bloc”. In this post I will make the case that not resisting this temptation is outright dangerous as it is conducive to totalitarian politics.