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Marx, Darwin, Freud & Post-Modernism

by James Hitchcock
February 15, 2002

The "big three" of modern Western thought are Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud, men who, over the period l850-l920, transformed our entire way of looking at reality. They differed in fundamental ways but had one thing in common -- they were reductionists who claimed that realities that had long been thought of as in a "higher" realm of existence could be explained by the lower.

For Marx all social reality is class conflict, based on economic self-interest. Freedom is illusory, because people are actually following a script that history has written for them. Marx famously announced that "religion is the opiate of the people", and he was equally scornful of all other claims of spirituality. Art, philosophy, love, justice -- all could be reduced to economic interest.

Darwin's importance was his insistence that humanity must be understood biologically, in the same way as other animals. The human race has simply evolved skills that allow it to dominate nature. Darwin started out as a Christian but became an atheist, and he believed that his findings had eliminated the possibility of a "spiritual" nature.

Freud struck at the belief that reason elevates humanity far above other creatures and that through reason we reach truth. For Freud we are governed by irrational drives, rooted in sexuality. People may think they are free, but in fact they are at the mercy of unconscious drives. Freud's view of the spiritual is the title of a book he wrote about religion -- The Future of an Illusion.

During the twentieth century "enlightened" people in the West embraced these revolutionary ideas, which eventually became conventional wisdom. Like all revolutions, this one had two faces. The soft face reassured people that the theories posed no threat to cherished beliefs, even as the hard face boasted that modernism had discredited those beliefs once and for all. But toward the end of the twentieth century unexpected things began to happen.

The first of the giants to fall was Freud. Feminists and homosexuals accused him of demeaning them, incidents in his career were cited to call into question both his integrity and his scientific competence, and psychiatry seemed to make more progress through medication than through Freudian analysis.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late l980s inflicted a death blow on Marxism, which is now seen as not only failing to deliver its promised utopia but as creating an inhumane tyranny. Marxists are now regarded as willfully blind dogmatists.

The rejection of Marxism and Freudianism has occured in intellectual circles that at one time were sympathetic to both, for example, in the pages of The New York Review of Books. One of the leading debunkers, representative of a growing body of opinion, is Frederick Crews, a literary critic who at one time was a convinced Freudian but now repudiates Freud in the strongest terms.

What then of Darwin? Here, it seems, the modernist line is holding, at least temporarily. Darwinism has been under attack from some scientists who claim that its theories are only that and lack scientific foundation. But there are equally vigorous defenses of it, including some by none other than Frederick Crews.

Crews's position is interesting because, while charging that intellectuals allowed themselves to be bamboozled for decades by Freudianism, he is an unabashed hard-liner when it comes to Darwin. Some Darwinians extend a hand of civility to religious believers, conceding that science and belief are separate areas of existence that need not oppose one another. But Crews and other prominent Darwinians insist that Darwin did indeed, once and for all, discredit religion.

Religious belief has been retreating in Western culture for several centuries, as the waters of modernism have risen. Now it appears that modernism is itself under siege, and some of its defenders have apparently chosen to abandon two of its three major fortresses in order to take their stand in the third. One of the things that is meant by "post-modernism" is precisely that the pillars of modern secularism are now themselves crumbling. It can be argued that the denial of religion is in fact the essence of modernism, which is why the aggressive defense of Darwin is crucial to men like Frederick Crews.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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