A well-known member of the British left once discovered to his surprise that several of his socialist friends, including myself, had all attended the same school. We weren’t, however, public schoolboys in flight from our privileged backgrounds; nor was the school the kind of place where you call the teachers Nick and Maggie and are encouraged to have sex on the floor of the assembly hall. It was a Roman Catholic grammar school in Manchester, run by an obscure order of clerics, and like most Catholic schools in Britain its pupils were almost all descendants of Irish working-class immigrants.
There have been a number of prominent Catholics on the British left, most of them what the church would call ‘lapsed’. To be lapsed is less a matter of ceasing to be a Catholic than a particular way of being one – a fairly honorific way, in fact, which includes such luminaries as Graham Greene and Seamus Heaney. The result is that nobody can ever leave the Catholic church; instead, they are simply shuttled from one category to another, rather as a retired Brigadier is still a Brigadier. The political philosopher Raymond Geuss confesses in his latest book, Not Thinking like a Liberal, that his religious upbringing failed to make him even a bad Catholic; yet bad Catholics are what the lapsed really are, often productively so. They can be heretics in the truth, to use John Milton’s phrase. Geuss may not go along with the church on such minor matters as the existence of God, but he insists that none of his fundamental attitudes have changed since his schooldays, which the clerics who taught him would no doubt be delighted to hear. As a staunch anti-liberal, he remains a bad Catholic to the end.
Catholics who become leftists don’t tend to do so simply by way of reaction to a right-wing, deeply authoritarian set up. Nor is it that they are predisposed by their upbringing to left-wing sects which like the church believe themselves to be the sole proprietors of truth, and which have their own secular version of schisms, heresies and even popes. It is rather that you can move from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism. To be raised a Catholic is to have no feel for liberal individualism. Catholics are not impressed by the sovereign autonomous subject. In fact, like Geuss, they are far too little impressed by it. They think instead in corporate terms, and are instinctively ill at ease with Protestant inwardness and solitude. The more positive side of ritual observances is that what matters is what you do, not some inner angst or ecstasy. Catholics also hold that human existence is an institutional affair, and is thus inherently social. Nor are they rattled by the idea of doctrine, or even of dogma, which they understand in its original sense as meaning whatever is taught. Reason has its limits; but it is not an inherently corrupt facility, as radical Protestantism claims, and within its constraints one must argue and analyse as precisely as possible. Endless open-mindedness is to be admonished rather than admired. The truth will set you free. The late left-wing theologian Herbert McCabe once told an Anglican bishop that the difference between the two of them on a certain issue was not a matter of emphasis, but that he, McCabe, was right and the bishop was wrong. Or, he added, if he is right, then I am wrong. It is an authentically Catholic note.
To be a Catholic in Britain is to grow up aware that you are a semi-outsider, and thus to be slightly wary of social orthodoxy. An Irish heritage is likely to intensify this sense of exclusion. The Catholic church in this country still has a lively sense of a history of persecution, though more as the object of such bigotry than the subject of it. Some Catholics refer to themselves jocularly as Papists, in the same way that gay men and women may call themselves Queer. All this, too, can shift some of its members leftwards, not least because they will have absorbed at school something of the church’s social teaching. This is hardly revolutionary stuff, but it is scarcely pro-capitalist either. On the contrary, a series of papal encyclicals have denounced the unbridled pursuit of profit and the injustices of class-society. It is probably no accident that Bono and Bob Geldof are both Irish ex-Catholics. They would have heard a good deal about overseas missions to the poor in their most impressionable years. Like socialists, Catholics are internationally-minded. There is a sense in which a Catholic from Canada speaks the same language as one from Korea.
Raymond Geuss’s family were not Irish emigrants; his mother was from Pennsylvania and his father from Indiana. Yet he, too, imbibed a suspicion of liberalism from his private Catholic boarding school near Philadelphia (which notably was staffed in large part by Hungarian priests, among them post-1956 refugees), a gut feeling which was later to be philosophically elaborated at Columbia University. Not Thinking like a Liberal interweaves an account of his upbringing as the son of a steelworker and a secretary with pen portraits of three university teachers whose critiques of liberalism helped him theorise his schoolboy intuitions in secular terms. His school, he argues, managed to steer a path between liberalism and authoritarianism. Rather than being obsessed with sex and scholasticism in the usual Catholic manner, it was a civilised milieu in which the names of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and Freud were not unknown. My own alma mater was rather less urbane. When I asked for studies of Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant in the form of Speech Day prizes, I was refused them on the grounds that all four philosophers were on the Vatican’s Index of forbidden books, and was handed instead a work of excruciating tedium by an elderly Irish Jesuit.
It is refreshing to find a portrait of a Catholic school which diverges from the brutal Joycean stereotype; but if the anti-liberalism of the place is typical of such establishments, one doubts that the same is true of its anti-authoritarianism. My own clerical headmaster, a borderline psychopath whose only distinction was to have grown up in the same small Irish town as Henry James’s grandfather, not only thrashed us mercilessly but gave the distinct impression that he would have done the same to the teaching staff if he could have got away with it. During the last hours of his life, his fellow clerics refused to gather around his deathbed to recite the customary prayers for the dying. One suspects that Geuss had it easy.
What he learnt from his religion teacher was that no individual is truly independent and free-standing; that we have no spontaneous access to our inner selves; and that the good is neither available through mere introspection nor reducible to what individuals happen to want. His mentor, in short, was a moral realist, a position perhaps more popular then than it is now. There are, he maintained, moral and religious questions which could not be reduced to matters of taste, choice or opinion, and not all values and opinions were to be tolerated. It was a mistake to think of Christianity as a theory formulated as a book. It was rather a constellation of historical practices, events and institutions in which certain beliefs were embedded, and from which they could not be abstracted. The Protestant fetishism of the word (sola scriptura) overlooked its entrenchment in what Wittgenstein around the same time was calling forms of life. It assumed a false transparency of the sign, in contrast with a more Catholic insistence on semantic obscurity and the inherent pluralism of the interpretative process. Whatever other intellectual crimes may be laid at Catholicism’s door, fundamentalism, which is essentially a mistaken theory of language, isn’t one of them. Even so, Geuss might have noted the irony that the founder of the art of hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, was a Protestant theologian.
As a student of political philosophy at Columbia in the 1960s, Geuss encountered three left-wing critics of the liberalism of which his school had taught him to be sceptical. Robert Paul Wolff, author of In Defense of Anarchism, rejected the liberal idea of a single impartial political framework that could be agree upon by divergent interests and values. Having had access to some of the materials from which John Rawls fashioned A Theory of Justice, he published The Poverty of Liberalism, a critique of Rawls’s work avant la lettre, which notes among other things that in Rawls’s view the most egregious inequalities can be defended on the grounds that the poor would be even worse off without them. Sidney Morgenbesser was a teacher whose casual conversation was so brilliant that one would have ‘paid for admission’; but apart from some suggestive aperçus about the relation between reason and commitment, it is hard to extract an extensive account of his thought from Geuss’s biographical jottings. The same is true of his discussion of the now largely unknown Robert Denoon Cumming.
If Geuss were less suspicious of what he calls ‘world views’, he might acknowledge that one at least of them offers a more dialectical assessment of liberalism than he is willing to countenance. Marx’s attitude to the creed is a supreme example of the virtue of granting your antagonist all you can, which in his case means recognising that autonomy, self-realisation, a hostility to autocracy and the like are part of the substance of socialism rather than an alternative to it. Had Geuss approached his subject historically as well as philosophically, grasping the revolutionary élan of liberalism in the Europe of the ancien regimes, he might have come to see that there is more to it than the prejudices of Rawls. He did, after all, go on from Columbia to study Adorno and Heidegger in Germany; and while reading the former confirmed his distaste for the liberal mind, we hear nothing of how reflecting on the latter might have bred a certain respect for it.
What has remained constant in his thought for fifty years, Geuss informs us in a somewhat foolhardy flourish, is a conviction that ‘the tradition which runs from Locke, through J.S. Mill, to Rawls was not the place to look for insight into anything’. To which one might retort with Millian equipoise that the liberal heritage may be politically ineffective but it is by no means intellectually barren. The book doesn’t really argue a case against the doctrines it dismisses in so cavalier a fashion, but this isn’t the point. It is less an intellectual intervention than a loving tribute to a set of thinkers without who the author wouldn’t be who he is. It is more anecdotal than argumentative; but it is also just the kind of book one should write in one’s retirement, when the cut and thrust of argument has faded, the dust gradually clears and you see in a long retrospect who and what really matters to you.
Read on: John Baptiste-Oduor, ‘A Pragmatist Maverick’, NLR 125.