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As the culture of repudiation takes on pathological forms, aiming to replace Western civilization and American republicanism with a project of pure negation, those who wish to preserve our inheritance might profitably turn to thinkers from the past who can illumine the totalitarian nihilism all around us. One lesser-known thinker who truly belongs in the pantheon of anti-totalitarian thought is Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973), a Hungarian-born Jew who converted to Catholicism in 1926 under the influence of G. K. Chesterton’s writings.

A phenomenologist and moral and political philosopher of great insight, Kolnai, along with Dietrich von Hildebrand, wrote the first sustained critique of National Socialist ideology in the German-language press, beginning in 1926. His battle against the paganism of the National Socialist regime culminated in a best-selling book, War Against the West, published in Britain and the United States in 1938. Some of the chapter titles and subtitles give one immediate access to the spirit of the book: “Tribal Egotism versus Humanity and Objective Standards,” “The Eros of Militarism,” “The Revolt against Liberty,” “The Revival of Elemental Forces,” “The New Paganism,” “Lawless Law,” and “Racial Purity.” A lifelong critic of National Socialism, Kolnai self-consciously wrote as a Christian and philosopher defending “the soul of the West” (as he called it) against the “primitivism” of National Socialist ideologists.

After the war, Kolnai taught at the University of Laval in Quebec City before his final move to England and the University of Bedford in 1955. While in Quebec City, he concluded that communism, not Nazism, was the most “perfected” form of totalitarianism. In 1950, he wrote a daring and illuminating essay called “Three Riders of the Apocalypse” in which he discussed the affinities among Nazism, communism, and what he called “progressive democracy.” As we shall see, Kolnai saw much truth in democracy and in Chesterton’s “plain man,” but opposed the doctrinaire and even revolutionary democratic notions advanced in the name of the “common man.” In an essay from the same period, “The Meaning of the Common Man,” Kolnai outlined an alternative to the illusions of “progressive democracy.” A democracy worth its salt should emphasize its political continuity with Western traditions of constitutionalism and its “moral continuity with the high tradition of Antiquity, Christendom, and the half-surviving Liberal cultures of yesterday.” True democracy, informed by conservative constitutionalism and the moral law, is rooted in respect for the rule of law and a transcendental support for human liberty and dignity. 

Unlike “progressive democracy,” Kolnai argued, conservative democracy respects the best of the liberal tradition and rests upon a balanced social and political order that limits “all social powers and political prerogatives” and defers “to a Power radically beyond and above Man in his social reality, in his political dignity and in all manifestations of his ‘will.’” Kolnai was a thoughtful partisan of what Tocqueville once called “liberty under God and the law.” Progressive democrats see “no enemies to the Left.” They too often indulge revolutionary regimes and destructive social movements—precisely because these “democrats” have distorted and repudiated indispensable Christian categories. At a profoundly spiritual level, Christianity set men free and “lifted [them] above the flats of his fallen nature.” Modern humanitarianism, the religion of humanity, put forth a new, utopian program whereby angry and impatient human beings “construed the automatic workings of [man’s] fallen nature into a mirage of self-made heaven.” And in the final, “metaphysically mad” epiphany, to cite a Burkean formulation, revolutionaries engage in destructive totalitarian projects that attack recalcitrant reality, “afire with the unholy rage of . . . emancipation and sovereignty.” All of this necessarily culminates in what Kolnai never tired of calling “the self-enslavement of man.”

In a 1972 essay that explored the respective “Conservative and Revolutionary Ethos,” Kolnai acknowledged that revolutionaries could from time to time constructively challenge the complacency of the rich and the powerful. In this essay, however, Kolnai argued that conservatives, much more than revolutionaries, could appreciate what was just and legitimate in the challenge from the other side. Reform, and appeal to objective and enduring verities, are essential to authentic conservatism. With a conservatism informed by Christian conscience, “the table of moral duties remains inviolate” in theory, and often in practice. Not so for revolutionaries, cultural and political.

As Kolnai wrote in his 1960 essay “The Utopian Mind” (he also left an unfinished but now published book by the same name), angry and moralistic revolutionaries make light of the concrete demands of the Ten Commandments and demonize real and imagined “enemies of the people.” Conscience and moral duties make no claims on their hearts, and are actively dismissed, even mocked, in the name of revolutionary ideology. In the end, Kolnai wrote in the conclusion of “Conservative and Revolutionary Ethos,” their critique is leveled not at this or that ruler, this or that system of power, nor at Nature, history, or “mankind, but at the world itself, at Creation.”

Against the revolution of nihilism in its various permutations, against this project of emancipation-turned-self-enslavement, Christians and all persons of good will must take their stand with the “guardians of continuity.” If we have confidence in the “natural order of things,” if we do our civic and moral duties, if we have faith in the goodness of God our father and friend, we will surely outlast our opponents. But that depends on an anti-totalitarian Christian political philosophy worthy of the name, one open to the dual tasks of conservation and reform. 

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University.

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