Cultural Revolutions

Thomas Molnar, R.I.P.

On July 10, in Richmond, Virginia, the intellectual historian Thomas Molnar went to his reward, leaving behind an array of gorgeous ruins.  By these I mean not his works, which were masterfully crafted and will endure.  No, the ruins that Molnar used to guard are the temples, forts, and libraries of our previous civilization, the crumbling traces of what David Gress called (in From Plato to NATO) the “Old West,” those institutions of order that cannot neatly fit into any ideology—including the Americanism-for-export that “movement” conservatism promoted throughout the Cold War, whose legitimate heir is neoconservatism.

When I would visit him in his Lincoln Center digs, and later in (of all places) suburban New Jersey, Molnar used to shock me with such observations.  I’d always believed, before meeting him, that the right/left spectrum was born with the French Revolution, but Molnar casually referred to the institutions of “the right” in ancient Greece and Rome, even Egypt.  And again, to this American conservative, his definitions were unexpected.  On the right he included, along with the priests and the soldiers, the magistrates—the government!  On the left he grouped most rhetoricians and the leaders of the merchant class.  Indeed, throughout his writing—from the book that made his reputation, The Decline of the Intellectual (1961), to the letters he traded with figures ranging from Albert Camus to the count of Paris—Molnar made clear that he had assimilated Marx’s insight that the bourgeoisie is at its heart a revolutionary class.  To make this point more vividly, he would say things like, “Calvin was the world’s first Bolshevik.”

Intellectuals, who began as the burghers’ servants and propagandists against the interests of priests, aristocrats, and kings, soon grew impatient with what they saw as the blinkered self-interest and philistinism of their patrons, and turned to utopian ideologies of the left to advance the revolution they’d begun.  In The Counter-Revolution (1969), Molnar traced the outlines of a movement in the opposite direction, a rebellion of intellectuals who renounced both the modern, bourgeois paterfamilias and his prodigal leftist sons.  The counterrevolutionary, for Molnar, is a man who looks back behind his feckless father to his ancestors, the dusty portraits hanging on the wall, the soldiers and saints who toiled in service of causes deeper, higher, and to us moderns stranger than a house with a white picket fence.  On this point, Molnar echoed the judgment of historian Christopher Dawson, whose famous essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” rejects worldly, Puritan prudence in favor of the splendid, quixotic sanctity of the Spanish and French baroque.  Here Molnar genially disagreed with another friend, the social philosopher and economist Wilhelm Röpke.  “Wilhelm was always too sanguine about the shopkeepers,” he told me, smiling sadly.  “I knew better.”

In Twin Powers (1988) and The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries (1990), Molnar identified secular “civil society” as the perennial enemy of both Church and state—or of any church or state conceived on traditional lines, as a given imposed by God on men whose duty it was to obey.  Any churches or states that civil society would tolerate must accept their inferior status, as options chosen by consumers whose allegiance amounted to “product loyalty” driven by “brand identity.”

By the time I knew him, Molnar treasured no hopes that any counterrevolution might succeed.  One could pick up throughout his writing the bones of such old illusions, and a deep disappointment with figures like Charles Maurras and Charles de Gaulle.  But Molnar didn’t let bitterness cloud the real achievements of such figures; he spoke warmly and fondly of De Gaulle’s political skills and Maurras’ profound sense of history.  “When Maurras wrote about Marseilles,” he told me once, “his sense of the place went back beyond the French, the Frankish, and the Roman periods to the Greek.  He knew that it was once and in some sense always will be a port of the Greeks.”

Molnar had no patience for nasty eccentrics who pined for National Socialism; he had spent too much time in German internment camps during World War II to treasure any such illusions.  Indeed, for a man who wrote so much and so well, Molnar has equally enduring value as an eyewitness.  He was in France when, in the wake of the Liberation, Marxists who’d collaborated with the Nazis up through June 1941 rounded up innocent Catholic monarchists by the thousands and murdered them.  He hadn’t just read that François Mitterrand had been a Vichyite—he remembered it.

Molnar also recalled the high hopes of “movement” conservatives who flocked, as he once had, behind the banner of William F. Buckley, Jr., confident that America’s partial, bourgeois revolution could coexist with the many elements of the Old Right that had survived here, or been imported with the waves of Catholic immigration.  “There is no other way to put it,” Molnar said.  “We were fooled.”  He was perhaps the person least surprised by what some of us saw as the hijacking of the American right by internationalists and utopians.  Indeed, he said with a twinkle in his eye of Magyar Schadenfreude, “They are the real Americans.  They are building the City on a Hill, and they will liquidate anything that stands in their way.  This should have been obvious all along.”  The traditionalist elements in the old conservative coalition were, he said, never more than window dressing, like the portrait of Kaiser Franz Josef hanging in one office at National Review, where Molnar was once a senior editor.  On that point, he always differed with another friend, Russell Kirk—who was, Molnar said, “far too eager for any sign of hope.”

Other young Americans on the right whom Molnar was kind enough to befriend—he was nothing if not generous with his time, and he always suffered us fools, if not always gladly—used to joke with me that we would bring Dr. Molnar our bright, shiny balloons full of illusions so he could pop them.  But these had nothing to do with Hope, the infused virtue that sustained Molnar through the long decades of destruction—as he watched his native Hungary ground down by communist occupiers, his beloved France Americanizing herself and inviting in armies of Arabs, and his adopted American home marching straight down the historical path it had laid out for itself (Molnar believed) at the moment of its founding.  Having begun life as a fairly secular reactionary, Molnar worked throughout the 1950’s at Sacred Heart College in San Francisco, where his profound friendship with that school’s president, Mother Helen Casey, spurred him to reexamine the claims of the Catholic Church.  He delved deeply into his faith and clung to it, becoming an acerbic critic of the banal revolutionary ferment that began with the Second Vatican Council—whose cultural and political byproducts Molnar saw as the almost final surrender of the Church to civil society, the priests’ acceptance of their role as chaplains at a shopping mall.  Molnar struck up friendships with many who resisted—sometimes too energetically or imprudently—this revolution, such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

But Molnar never let the revolutionaries run him out of his Church.  Indeed, as the structures of all the earthly institutions that he’d loved were neglected, deserted, defaced, Molnar’s otherworldly Hope grew stronger.  The collapse of the right was for him a kind of ascesis—a stripping away of everything, finally, that is not God Himself.  In the nest of his family, cared for by his loving wife, Ildiko, survived by his son, Eric, two stepchildren and seven grandchildren, remembered for more than 40 books and thousands of articles, Thomas Molnar died almost midway between the anniversaries of the American Revolution and the French.  Given all that he thought and wrote, I think he would smile at that.  May his soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace.

John Zmirak

John Zmirak

John Zmirak is Senior Editor of The Stream, and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. Follow John on Twitter here.

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