The year 1968 does not have quite the same symbolic resonance in the United States as it does in European countries like France and Italy. Still, people on both sides of the Atlantic generally agree that the turmoil and social transformation of the late sixties marked a cultural divide.
To us, what came before feels like a different epoch, and what came after is “our” world—in terms of ideas, morals, lifestyles, and political passions.
It is interesting that this divide did not correspond to any real, major shock, like a world war or a large-scale economic crisis.
The Vietnam war, of course, was important, but it does not explain phenomena like the explosion of the sexual revolution or the rise of the New Left. Political assassinations in the United States and the invasion of Czechoslovakia were traumatic, but they did not cause the student protests.
Even in Europe, 1968 did not bring about radical political change comparable to 1789 or 1917. What took place was a genuinely cultural phenomenon. It cannot be explained merely in economic or sociological terms, but challenges us to understand the ideas and ideals that moved its protagonists.
This was also the judgment of Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who called 1968 “the richest year in implicit philosophy since 1945” and made it the subject of penetrating essays (see The Age of Secularization).
He was among the first to perceive what could be called the “great paradox” of the counter-culture: what started as a rebellion against bourgeois conformity and oppressive technocracy ultimately ushered in an age of triumphant individualism and economic globalization. The age of Yippies prepared the age of yuppies.
The rediscovery of Marxism by the young rebels of the sixties started a long-term transformation of the left from advocate of the working class to political home of the professional elites. How did that happen?
Seeking “well-being,” not beatitude
Del Noce once stated rather cryptically that “1968 was the final bourgeois revolution.” Nowadays, the word “bourgeois” has fallen out of fashion, and is mostly remembered as a Marxist term of disparagement.
However, Del Noce believes that there is such a thing as a “bourgeois spirit” at work in modern history.
Borrowing from French sociologist Jacques Ellul, he identifies the core of the bourgeois worldview in the idea of worldly happiness (or, more recently, “well-being”) which, starting in the eighteenth century, gradually replaced the traditional idea of beatitude.
The latter associates human fulfillment with a “correct relationship with being,” meaning the Judeo-Christian or Platonic God. By contrast, the bourgeois mindset believes in the possibility of happiness “separated from such a relationship,” which therefore “becomes individualized, tied to the sensations, emotions, and desires of the individual.”
Obviously, beatitude includes happiness, but the traditional view recognizes an ultimate disproportion between the desires of the human heart and worldly realities, such that complete happiness involves a relationship with the Infinite and is impossible in this world.
Conversely, the bourgeois view erases the Augustinian inquietum cor meum—or transposes it “horizontally” into an endless cycle of acquisition and consumption. At the historical level, it affirms the idea of progress, based on the ongoing expansion of science and individual autonomy.
At the philosophical level, it embraces instrumentalism, the attitude that everything, including knowledge, is a tool to pursue happiness. The bourgeois has a baffling capacity to assimilate anything, including religion, and “regards everything as relatively good because everything can be useful.” However, nothing is absolutely good or bad, hence the extreme fluidity of the bourgeois world.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bourgeois spirit co-existed with Christianity (which was “useful,” e.g. to strengthen the social order). But the two worldviews are incompatible—the doctrine of original sin contradicts the “right to happiness,” and the divine image in people stands in the way of instrumentalization—and ultimately they had to part ways.
Marxism and Its decomposition
According to Del Noce, their divorce was catalyzed by a third actor: revolutionary thought, typified by Marxism. Marxism does criticize the bourgeois order, but not in the name of any transcendent order of values.
Rather, its criticism is based on historical materialism, exposing morality and religion as masks that conceal economic interests. Like religious thought, however, Marxism affirms a non-individualistic “destiny” of mankind, placing it in the future, after a cathartic event (the revolution) to be brought about by the inexorable dialectic of history.
Del Noce points out that these two aspects, the materialistic and the dialectic, are contradictory. Therefore Marxism must undergo a process of decomposition, which marked twentieth-century European culture.
Marxist dialectical materialism turned out to be a pipe dream (history did not enter the “reign of freedom”), but Marxist historical materialism was very influential, and fueled the rise of a virulent form of moral relativism that suits capitalism much better than the formally Christian (Kantian) bourgeois morality of the nineteenth century.
According to Del Noce, this is an instance of a general pattern whereby revolutionary thought, because of its essentially negative character, always ends up purifying the bourgeois spirit from some residues of tradition.
Now we can understand what Del Noce meant by “the final bourgeois revolution.” The student movement undoubtedly started as a rebellion against bourgeois society, and, in Del Noce’s view,
[T]he students’ restlessness and impatience, their mistrust of their elders, are in themselves positive phenomena. Indeed, they express human nature’s rebellion against the distinctive process—of desecration and dehumanization at the same time—of the two atheistic societies, the Marxist and the affluent.
Unfortunately, a “tragic misunderstanding” took place: the young mistook the affluent society of their parents for “tradition” and fell back into the default Marxist critique of every transcendent ideal. This ensured their defeat, because one more time the revolutionary demolition of tradition played right into the hands of the bourgeois mindset, and allowed it to manifest itself in an even purer state. The sad trajectory of that generation has been beautifully captured in a recent essay by Sohrab Ahmari.
To Del Noce, the symbol of the students’ debacle is the philosophical trajectory of Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse criticizes correctly the “one-dimensional society,” but cannot give up “the metaphysical and theological negations stated by Feuerbach and Marx,” and thus he “cannot stop at a mere critique of present reality as abnormal [because] he would be forced to start a process of rediscovery of a transcendent normative reality.”
He needs a “new” revolution. Since neo-capitalism has neutralized the proletariat through mass consumption, he must imagine that the “transition to freedom will be achieved by eliminating the repression of instincts.”
But then his proposal “is destined not to be very different, when popularized, from [Wilhelm] Reich’s theories about the sexual revolution.” And what could be more bourgeois than Reich’s idea of individualized sexual happiness? In Del Noce’s words:
No revolution was ever a tool of its enemies as much as the one promoted by Marcuse’s philosophy, because its only victim was whatever remained of belief in the traditional values that the “system” had been unable to destroy. This task was carried out almost miraculously by the unexpected rebellion [of 1968]. The form of its failure enabled neo-capitalism to get rid of the onerous influence of the traditional values, which until then it had been forced to respect.
Del Noce’s thesis is that, paradoxically, philosophical subordination to revolutionary progressivism was the reason why the counter-culture of the sixties, instead of overthrowing bourgeois society, swept away the last traditional constraints that held back its expansion and finally made everything, even the human body, “an object of trade.”
The world ushered in by the soixante-huitards is still, essentially, our world. People have often noted the outsize role of sexual “rights” in contemporary progressive politics, and that they are at least as absolute as, say, the right to life from a Christian perspective.
Such moral absolutism (which is even more striking in a context of general ethical relativism) can only be explained on the basis of a deep-seated, essentially “religious” conviction that people have a right to happiness, and that it is possible in this world, so that everything standing in its way is an intolerable assault on human personality.
If the end of human life is worldly happiness, it is quite inevitable that sexuality becomes the object of disproportionate expectations, and the focus of people’s deepest aspirations.
Infiniteness of human desire
In closing, we may ask: what could the generation of 1968 have done differently? According to Del Noce, a successful anti-bourgeois revolution can only be religious, not in the sense of advancing a particular set of doctrines or a particular tradition, but in the sense of affirming the radical infiniteness of human desire, also as the only possible foundation of social life.
In that same year 1968 he described Simone Weil as the “real rebel” of our epoch because she recognized that,
At the center of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world. . . . This is the only possible motive for universal respect toward all human beings.
Being present in social and political life with a full awareness of the real scope of human desire is, I would argue, the single greatest contribution a Christian can make to our historical moment.
Carlo Lancellotti is a Professor of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island, and a Faculty in Physics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is originally from Milan, Italy, and has recently translated into English two volumes of essays by 20th century Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Republished with permission from The Public Discourse.