"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Failing to Understand and Appreciate Marx and Freud

I have a long review essay coming out at Catholic World Report discussing Alasdair MacIntyre's latest book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. (A clear understanding of MacIntyre is more important than ever thanks to his having been traduced by a certain blogger hawking dégonflé tracts to fund his oyster habit while prattling fatuously about asceticism.) It is an extraordinary book for a man fast closing in on 90, showing that he has lost none of his formidable powers of synthesis and reason.

I will not repeat here what I shall say there, but let me at least note a few other things about that book and in particular two of the controversial "masters of suspicion" it treats, viz., Freud and Marx.

This latest book of MacIntyre's is in some ways a return to some of his earliest writings about Marx, as captured in, e.g., Marxism and Christianity. That title was a re-working of his earlier Marxism: An Interpretation, which is very hard to come by now.

Helpfully, however, many of MacIntyre's most recondite writings about Marx have been reprinted in a collection that got almost no attention, but without which Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity will be much harder for readers to comprehend: Alasdair MacIntyre's Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings, 1953-1974, edited by Paul Blackledge.

That collection contains riches beyond counting. Part of its value comes from the fascinating glimpses it gives one into postwar British politics of the left, of socialist and Marxist parties and debates in which MacIntyre was heavily and intimately involved for some time before coming gradually to find himself estranged by and from those groups both politically and philosophically.

This new book is also a return to Freud, about whom MacIntyre published his first book in the 1950s when he was still in his 20s and a newly minted lecturer looking at the philosophy of psychology and of Freudian psychoanalysis in particular. That book, The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis was reprinted in 2004. In both this first book of his, and now his latest, MacIntyre does not hesitate to recognize both the problems of certain strands of psychoanalytic thought, but also the "greatness" of Freud.

What makes Freud useful for MacIntyre is his unparalleled insight into the nature of our desires, and how we fail to be good reasoners when our desires go astray or are corrupted by unconscious trauma; and what makes Marx still so important and useful is that he continues to offer those willing to listen a very powerful critique of how capitalism subtly exploits and fuels those desires Freud recognized.

It is, alas, a staple of too much cheap and grubby Christian apologetics for a century and more now to run down Freud and Marx alike without ever having seriously read either man in the original (or a scholarly translation) and to treat both as the greatest threat ever faced by Christianity. I count myself fortunate to have been introduced, as an undergraduate in psychology in Ottawa in the early 1990s, to the original writings of both Freud and Jung (and others in that first generation around Vienna) in several classes, including especially a class on psychoanalysis and religion taught by a professor who was himself a Christian and not threatened by what psychoanalysis had to offer.

That education allowed me not to assume "straightforward antagonism" between Freud and Christianity--whereas, MacIntyre says, such antagonism is too often assumed by too many Christians with regard to both Freud (and Marx). I have myself, in a very modest way, been trying on here (and elsewhere earlier in my life) to suggest certain areas where psychoanalytic thought and theology are simpatico as seen, e.g., in the work of the contemporary analyst Adam Phillips, who, like MacIntyre, comes out of the British left. In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, in fact, MacIntyre confesses a debt to Phillips and the latter's biography of D.W. Winnicott, the pioneering English psychoanalyst who did so much to help us understand the mother-child relationship.

Those assuming Freudian-Marxist antagonism do a deep disservice not just to them both but also to Christianity, which has a great deal in common with both men and some (not all) of their ideas, and could be strengthened by a closer alliance with them. Alas, too many people are unwilling to hear this, let alone entertain such an alliance, and usually for one of two reasons: either because they rely on fourth-hand hearsay about what Marx and Freud actually said--a treatment that invariably turns either man into a comic-opera grotesque--or because they fail to appreciate the force of the maxim abusus non tollit usum.

Merely because Marxist thought was abused by and in "Kruschev Enterprises Inc." (one of MacIntyre's several sarcastic names for the Soviet Union) is no reason to write him off; that applies equally to Freud and whatever uses and abuses have been committed in his name. In his refusal to write either man off, and in his willingness, now in his late 80s, to confess that we still need to learn much from Freud and Marx (especially the Marx of the 1840s and his Theses on Feuerbach), MacIntyre is a superlative example of a consummate Catholic thinker who finds good wherever he can, regardless of its provenance and without regard for the fashionable prejudices that have been wreathed about either man for far too long thanks to the "spiritual-industrial complex."

Some of my students next fall will be looking critically at that spiritual-industrial complex and how deeply corrosive and corrupting it is of Christianity from within. And perhaps the weakest point of entry for the kind of commodification of Christianity that Marx foresaw is in the realm we label "spirituality," a term which drips with a repulsive bourgeois self-regard masking little more than straight-up narcissism the perfect companion to which, of course, is the purchase of this book or that program or some other commodity (a "Benedict option," say). In this task we will be aided by reading, inter alia, Vincent Miller's welcome and important book, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, which I commend to your attention.

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