Compact Magazine's Unholy Alliance
The Recovery of a Dishonorable Tradition
Readers of the March 22nd New York Times, might have noticed the article “Two Religious Conservatives and a Marxist Walk Into a Journal,” announcing the new magazine Compact, a joint project of rightists Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz with “Marxist labor populist” Edwin Aponte. Ahmari is one of the more prominent names of the illiberal Catholic Right; Schmitz, an editor of First Things, a second-string character of the same political sympathies; Aponte was one of the founders The Bellows, an unsuccessful predecessor project with similar “post-left” politics. Some of the other names associated with the venture are well-known Right critics of liberal democracy: Adrian Vermuele, an Integralist Harvard Law professor and Carl Schmitt fan, and Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed”— but there are also prominent members of the contrarian, anti-anti-Trump Left: specialists of waspish and cranky philippic that borders on paranoid raving like Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey.
If the membership wasn’t enough of a clue, the mission statement makes clear that the main enemy of this coalition is liberalism:
Every new magazine should be an intimation of a possible future, a glimpse of how the world might be. Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right.
Our name evokes our aspiration, and defines its limits. A compact is a political union drawing together different people for a common end. It is neither a contract nor a covenant, neither a market relation nor a religious sodality. It depends not on shared blood, but on shared purpose. We are concerned with advancing this properly political form of solidarity.
We believe that the ideology of liberalism is at odds with the virtue of liberality. We oppose liberalism in part because we seek a society more tolerant of human difference and human frailty. That is why, though we have definite opinions, we publish writers with whom we disagree.
Compact will challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital. Whoever does this is bound to be called radical. We do not shy from the label, but we insist on its proper meaning. Rightly understood, to be radical does not mean going to extremes. It means getting to the root of things. That requires talking about class as well as culture, material realities as well as ideologies.
A strong “social-democratic” state in defense of family, Church, and nation, against liberalism. Social Democracy, of course, is a tradition not many Americans are that familiar with. When they do know something about it, the name conjures harmless European welfare states: parliamentarianism, competition in free elections, support for political and social rights, etc.—in short, an embrace of the institutions of liberalism and liberal democracy with more ambitious goals of broad social equality. The employment of this term by an avowedly illiberal group feels obfuscatory, if not slightly mendacious. But perhaps if we replaced it with a near-cognate term “socialist”—and why not? after all, socialism is also an honorable tradition, just a rosier cousin of social democracy—we might get a clearer picture of the formula implied here: “socialism + family, Church, nation.” The Times article and the founders make the venture sound like a novelty; a bold attempt at an original synthesis, but here things are starting to sound uncomfortably familiar.
I started this newsletter with a series on the Dreyfus Affair and have continued to take an interest in the history of the French Third Republic. I thought that the politics and ideas of that era bore some relevance to the present day United States. Even before I started this project, I believed one could find echoes of Georges Sorel in the “post-liberal” Left’s rejection of liberal democracy. I never thought the Third Republic had a strict, 1 to 1 analogy with the present, but rather that a number of episodes could provide some bearing in the confusion of the contemporary situation. But now I have to say few things that have emerged in recent years are as redolent of that era as Compact’s attempt to transcend the Left-Right dichotomy with a traditionalist version of anti-capitalism. With its combination of the aspirations of yellow labor and the practitioners of yellow journalism, of Catholic Integralism and a revisionist, non-Marxist socialism, allied against a liberal “overclass controlling government, culture, and capital,” Compact is grasping at a kind of anti-Dreyfusism without a Dreyfus, and to be fair, without outward manifestation of overt antisemitism. Their revolt against modernity doesn’t yet need the explicit effigy of race, something the anti-Dreyfusards found to be an indispensable principle of organization.
The Dreyfus Affair, more than a legal drama or a campaign for to clear an innocent man’s name, was a crisis of democracy. Dreyfus the man become a symbol of a struggle over the political order itself. It gave birth to a kind of realignment: on one side you had dedicated republicans and democrats of varying shades and on the other those that believed that the parliamentary republic was hopelessly decadent, corrupt, and weak, that it needed to be replaced with a stronger state, more integral and wholesome forms of community, the ancient traditions of a France that had been poisoned by the forces of modern culture and industry, represented most saliently by the figure of the Jew.
Several movements were forged in the crucible of the Affair, attempts to mobilize its passions for larger projects: Les Jaunes, “yellow labor”, sponsored by business interests, that rejected the Marxist notion of class struggle in favor of a proposed inter-class cooperation; the Integralism of Charles Maurras, who proposed a return to state Catholicism and monarchy as remedies for the ills of modern life; the morbid and pessimistic nationalism of Barrés, preoccupied decline and decadence. They were joined by defectors from the Left disillusioned with democracy and Dreyfusism like Sorel, who believed the virile, masculine working class was being sapped of its strength by democratic socialism’s compromises with liberalism and who saw in the myths of nationalism the possibility of more “authentic” forms of solidarity. They often labeled themselves “national socialists,” a term now forever covered in infamy that once sounded fresh and innovative. The followers of Sorel and members of Action Française even collaborated together in the Cercle Proudhon, named after Marx’s antagonist in the socialist movement, which published the journal Cahiers du Circle Proudhon. Their 1912 manifesto sounds like a more muscular and open version of Compact:
Democracy is the most serious error of the past century. If we want to live, if we want to work, if in public life we want to possess the highest human guarantees for production and culture; if we want to preserve and increase the moral, intellectual, and material capital of civilization, it is absolutely necessary to destroy democratic institutions.
Ideal democracy is the most foolish of dreams. Historic democracy, realized in the colors that the modern world knows it under, is a mortal illness for nations, for human societies, for families, for individuals. Brought among us to establish the rule of virtue, it tolerates and encourages all forms of license. Theoretically it is a regime of liberty; practically it hates concrete, real liberties and it has surrendered us to great companies of thieves and to politicians leagued with financiers or dominated by them, who live on the exploitation of the producers.
Finally, democracy has allowed, in the economy and in politics, the establishment of the capitalist regime, which destroys in the polis what democratic ideas dissolve in the spirit, that is, nations, the family, and morals, by substituting the law of gold for the laws of blood.
Democracy lives on gold and the perversion of the intelligence. It will die of the awakening of the spirit and the establishment of institutions that the French create or recreate for the defense of their freedoms and their spiritual and material interests. It is to favor this dual undertaking that we will work in the Cercle Proudhon. We will fight mercilessly against the false science that served to justify democratic ideas and against the economic systems that their inventors have destined to stupefy the working classes, and we will passionately support the movements that restore their freedoms to the French, in the forms appropriate to the modern world, and which allow them to live by working with the same satisfaction of their sense of honor as when they die in combat.
By “democracy” they meant liberal democracy — they were in favor of a different conception of popular rule. As Zeev Sternhell writes in his Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, this alliance was to be a harbinger:
In place of the bourgeois ideology and as an alternative to democratic socialism, the Cercle Proudhon propounded a new ethic suited to the alliance of nationalism and syndicalism, those "two synthesizing and convergent movements, one at the extreme right and the other at the extreme left, that have begun the siege and assault on democracy." Their solution was thus intended as a complete replacement of the liberal order. They wished to create a new world — virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical — based on the sense of duty and sacrifice: a world where a morality of warriors and monks would prevail. They wanted a society dominated by a powerful avant-garde, a proletarian elite, an aristocracy of producers, joined in alliance against the decadent bourgeoisie with an intellectual youth avid for action. When the time came, it would not be difficult for a synthesis of this kind to take on the name of fascism.
I would like to ask the founders of Compact, uncomfortable labels aside, where they would differ in ideology from this earlier vision? Are you offering a toned-down, moderate-sounding version of the same thing?
Anti-Dreyfusism and its offspring were not just the pet projects of intellectuals, but had real constituencies: like the hundreds of thousands of workers joined Les Jaune or the mobs in the street that took Anti-Dreyfusard polemics as their marching orders. The troubling legacy of the Trump years aside, this tiny group does not yet have any clear or organic connection to a mass sector of the American public. I expect this venture, like The Bellows before it, to fail or only limp on with the help of monied support. And I don’t think we should meet the birth of Compact with an undue sense of alarm, but it’s worth recalling what foul synthetics have been cooked up in such laboratories on the past.
I’m teaching modern French history next Fall and would like to assign your essays. Please contact me.
I can't wait to read this. Are you familiar with the journal Telos? It has (or had) some of the same right/left issues that went well beyond its infatuation with Schmitt.