The Conflict Between Christianity and Communism

“Russian Revolution of 1917”

The conflict between Christianity and Marxism – between the Catholic Church and the Communist party – is the vital issue of our time. It is not a conflict of rival economic systems like the conflict between Socialism and Capitalism, or of rival political ideals – as with Parliamentarism and Fascism. It is a conflict of rival philosophies and of rival doctrines regarding the very nature of man and society.

The importance of this conflict was by no means clearly realized by the founders of Communism themselves. Catholicism was something quite outside the orbit of Marx’s thought. He seems to have regarded it, not as a dangerous rival, but as a dying force which belonged essentially to the past. In his historical theory Catholicism is bound up with feudalism: it is the ideological reflection of feudal society, and consequently it had little significance for the modern world, save in a few backward regions where the social structure was that of a past age. The real enemy in Marx’s eyes was not Catholicism or Christianity, but the power that had, so Marx believed, already dethroned God and set up a purely secular culture and new secular standards of value – the power of Capitalism.

In Marx’s view, the whole structure of society is determined by economic production, and consequently it is justifiable to define a state of society by its economic character. But it may also be defined sociologically by its characteristic social type, and this is what Marx does when he speaks of bourgeois society and bourgeois civilization, as indeed is his usual practice.

Finally, it is possible to define a state of society ideologically by its characteristic ideas and system of thought. For example, Capitalist and bourgeois society is characterized by the doctrines of free trade and economic individualism, and by the ideals of progress, freedom of thought and democratic institutions – in a word, by Liberalism.

Now, Marx himself did not regard ideologies as of prime importance, since they were to him merely the theoretical reflection of social realities which are primarily economic and material. But he fully recognizes – no thinker more so – that ideology and sociology are indossulibly linked, i.e., that Capitalism, bourgeois society and Liberalism are three aspects of the same social reality.

If, however, we interpret history in a more spiritual fashion than that of Marx, we shall tend to emphasize the importance of this ideological, or we may rather say, spiritual, factor. And I should myself be inclined to regard Liberalism, for example, as one of the creative forces in the formation of the new order, and not merely as a reflection of that order in men’s minds.

In any case, it is important to remember the existence of this element in connection with Capitalism. For not only Socialists, but social reformers of all kinds, including Catholics, are only too apt to treat Capitalism as a kind of abstract bogy which is responsible for all our ills, and not to remember that Capitalism is nothing else but economic Liberalism, and that it has a very close relationship not only with political Liberalism, but also with liberal philosophy and liberal idealism. Very few English Socialists seem to realize this, but Marx and Engels and Lenin saw it clearly enough, and that is why they devoted so much of their time to philosophical controversy and why they regarded Socialist idealists as a greater danger to the Communist faith than any number of open reactionaries or even Christians.

Thus the issue raised by Communism is a three-sided one that involves politics no less than economics, and philosophy and religion even more than politics. And the conflict is also a three-cornered one. It is not a straight fight between Communism and Catholicism or between Communism and Capitalism. It is a fight of each against all.

First, Liberalism, following in the steps of Protestantism, revolted against Catholicism, and its victory brought in the secularised culture of bourgeois Capitalism. And now Communism has risen against this culture and seeks to destroy it, while at the same time retaining all and more than all of its secular spirit and its hostility to the Catholic tradition. But though Communism is the enemy of both Catholicism and Capitalism, it stands far nearer to Capitalism than to Catholicism. One has only to read the Communist Manifesto to realize this, for it opens with a remarkable tribute to the bourgeois and capitalist achievement which is all the more significant when one considers the work of which it forms a part.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

“The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades.

“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

It is clear from these passages that Marx had a genuine admiration for the achievements of bourgeois and capitalist civilization. He admired its material achievement and power, its conquest of the world by machinery and economic organization. He appreciated still more its revolutionary achievement: its breaking down of the old social forms and institutions, its revolt against religious tradition and its thoroughgoing secularization of life. In all these respects Marx regarded Communism as destined to carry on the capitalist or bourgeois tradition, and Capitalism as a first step towards the new system of economic world organization. But on the other hand Marx was bitterly hostile to the ideological side of the bourgeois culture – that is to say, to the liberal ideals which the bourgeois themselves regarded as the real justification of their material achievement. All these ideals of freedom, parliamentary democracy, humanitarianism and the rest, Marx regarded as nothing but shams, plastered on to the front of society in order to hide the naked reality of exploitation and class interest.

Of course, Marx did not consciously blame the bourgeois for being governed by class interest, for class interest is, according to the Marxian theory, the supreme dynamic force in social life. The bourgeois can no more help exploiting the proletariat than the wolf help eating the lamb, the only difference being that the proletarian lamb is being transformed by the dialectic of history into a Communist wolf that will in turn devour the bourgeois lamb. What aroused Marx’s indignation was the hypocrisy of the bourgeois culture which refused to recognize these facts and put up a smoke screen of liberal idealism to hide them.

We, however, as Christians, may well take a diametrically opposite view of all this development. We may condemn the ruthless subordination of human life to economic ends and the wholesale secularization of culture as evil; and we may look on the faith of the nineteenth century in liberal ideals, in freedom and justice and humanity and progress as a redeeming trait in the harsh and unlovely features of bourgeois civilization. This faith was no sign of conscious hypocrisy – indeed, men like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill were just as sincere as any idealists who have ever lived.

On the other hand, we may well agree with Marx in his belief that it is the material element in bourgeois culture that is the permanent one and that the idealist liberal element is incapable of maintaining itself by its own inherent resources. For European Liberalism is a temporary phenomenon which belongs to the phase of transition between a Christian culture and one that is completely secularized. European culture had already ceased to be Christian in the eighteenth century, but it still retained the inherited moral standards and values of a Christian civilization. And so it attempted to erect these standards into an independent system by providing a rational philosophic justification for them. This was the Liberal idealism that was the faith of the nineteenth century – not a religious faith, but a quasi-religious substitute for one.

But as Liberalism did not create these moral ideals, so, too, it cannot preserve them. It lives on the spiritual capital that it has inherited from Christian civilization, and as this is exhausted something else must come to take its place. Once society is launched on the path of secularization it cannot stop in the half-way house of Liberalism; it must go on to the bitter end, whether that end be Communism or some alternative type of “totalitarian” secularism.

Here Marx and Engels were right, but our agreement with their judgment of facts only emphasizes our opposition to them on the vital question of values. Marxism condemns in Liberalism just the element that we can approve, namely, its partial acceptance of Christian moral standards; and it approves just what we condemn, that is to say, the secularization of life and the entire subordination of man to economic ends. This is the vital issue of Marxism, which has come more and more to the front as time goes on and which will, in the future, I believe, quite dwarf the original conflict between capital and labour. We are at the present time witnessing a profound revolution in European culture. All those Liberal achievements which seemed so secure half a century ago are to-day either lost or in peril. Here the responsibility of Communism is a very heavy one, for it has originated that cult of violence and that contempt for the value of human life which have spread like an epidemic from Eastern to Central Europe and may spread yet farther. When Engels writes of the “immense moral and spiritual impetus that derives from every successful revolution,” when he attacks the “insipid parsonic idea” that the use of violence demoralizes the person who uses it and declares that in Germany at least violence is necessary to “wipe out the servility that has permeated the national consciousness as a result of the humiliation of the Thirty Years’ War,” he is speaking a language that is only too familiar in Germany to-day, though it is not the Communists who use it and though the war in question is a more recent one than the Thirty Years’ War. Nor is this cult of violence confined to German Nazis. A man like Bernard Shaw, who has been a leader of what is known as progressive thought for a lifetime, has even gone so far as to plead not only for dictatorship, or for the abolition of private property, but for the right of the Government to exterminate recalcitrant minorities or so-called “anti-social elements.” And this is highly significant, because Shaw is a typical representative of that bourgeois intelligentsia which was the standard-bearer of Liberalism in the past, but which is now deserting the standard of Liberalism for the [Red Flag]. Everywhere in Europe to-day Liberalism seems a lost cause, whether the cry be forward to Communism or, as in Germany, back to neo-paganism and tribal patriotism. I do not, of course, mean that these two forces are of the same importance. There is a certain contradiction in National Socialism between the power of the Party and the authority of the State, which has already seriously weakened the movement and may further change its character. Nevertheless, though National Socialism may not be destined to endure, it has been strong enough to destroy Parliamentarism and Liberal democracy in Central Europe, and that in itself is a very significant thing.

In Russia, however, there is no such contradiction between the State and the Communist Party. The State has become nothing more than the instrument of the party, and the power of the party is shown by the Assyrian ruthlessness with which it has in the last few years destroyed the independent life of the Russian peasantry at the cost of an incalculable amount of human suffering. And these events show more clearly than any abstract argument the real issue of Communism. It is not an issue between the capitalists and the proletariat, for it is obvious that the real proletarians are the starving peasants of the Ukraine and not the well-fed bureaucrats of Moscow. The vital issue is the subordination of man, body and soul, to the economic machine of the secular State. And the greatest obstacle to the fulfillment of this end is not Capitalism, nor the bourgeois culture, but the Christian faith.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the opposition between Capitalism as a working system and Communism as an economic ideal is not an absolute one. If only Communism could show itself to be efficient, if only its Five-year plans could attain an outstanding success, then the leaders of Capitalism, the professional economist and the whole tribe of economic planners and organizers, would have no difficulty rallying to the Communist cause. And in the same way the leading representatives of bourgeois culture are also coming to terms with Communist ideals. It is precisely these people – left-wing peers and bourgeois intellectuals – who are the leading admirers and apologists of the Soviet regime in this country. They have lost their faith in the traditional creed of Liberalism, and they rally to Communism, because in spite of its cruelties and intolerances it seems modern and progressive and anti-religious. As Mr. Muggeridge has pointed out with such biting emphasis in his Winter in Moscow, all these Platonic admirers of Communism from the West find in Russia something that they can understand – a State run on advanced lines by advanced people; whereas the victims of the Soviet system, the wretched peasants and unprivileged workers and priests, are people of the underworld with whom they have nothing in common and whose sufferings seem distant and unreal.

Of course, the orthodox Communist will deny that this total subordination and sacrifice of humanity to the State machine is of the essence of Communism, for did not Marx and Lenin expressly teach that the dictatorship of the proletariat is only a temporary phase, and that the State itself will eventually wither away and give place to a classless and Stateless society? But how will this end be attained? Only when the individual is so completely socialized that he will instinctively devote all his energies to working for society and will be unable to even conceive of any end other than that of the economic organism of which he forms part. In such an order there would be no need for a State any more than it is necessary for ants and bees to have a State. But is it a human order, and is it possible for humanity to rise or sink to such a level?

Anyhow, there is no sign of anything of the kind happening at present, and in Russia the State does not wither away, but grows stronger and more centralized as time goes on.

Now, I do not believe that Communism in the strict orthodox sense is likely to come to Western Europe. Any violent revolution that attempted to “liquidate” the middle classes could not possibly succeed, and even if it did succeed it would only destroy the highly organized social mechanism of Western society. But, on the other hand, apart from religion, there is no other absolute end before modern civilization. The Communism of Marx and Lenin is a short cut to that end, which is only possible in a relatively primitive and unorganized type of society. But it is possible to attain the same end by a longer and more gradual path, and that is the path which Western society may follow. It will be less sensational and revolutionary; it will find a place for the bourgeois and perhaps even for the capitalist, but from the religious point of view it will be much the same thing in the end, for it will find no place for the Christian or for the human soul.

At first sight it may appear strange that a system which sets as its goal the bleak and inhuman ideals of economic totalitarianism can possess any attractions for idealist and social reformers. Yet nothing can be more clear than that in Western Europe at least it is the idealists, the humanitarians and the intellectuals who are most sensitive to the appeal of Communism. Nothing could be more unlike the men of blood and iron who founded the Soviet State than the amiable idealists who are the leaders of advanced though and advanced politics in this country. But while the former never disguised their contempt for the idealists, the latter have preserved a romantic admiration for Communism which manifests itself in countless speeches and articles, and pilgrimages to Moscow. Sentimental as much of this propaganda is, it is perfectly sincere and it bears witness to a certain fundamental weakness in Western society. The fact is that the bourgeois culture of the modern Capitalist State fails to satisfy the deepest need of the human spirit, so that the hungry and the dissatisfied turn for relief even to the dry husks of Communism.

As I have written elsewhere: “Man cannot live in a spiritual void; he needs some fixed social standards and some absolute intellectual principles. Bolshevism at least replaces the spiritual anarchy of bourgeois society by a rigid order and substitutes for the doubt and scepticism of an irresponsible intelligentsia the certitude of an absolute authority embodied in social institutions. It is true that the Bolshevik philosophy is a poor thing at best. It is a philosophy reduced to its very lowest terms, a philosophy with a minimum of spiritual and intellectual content. It impoverishes life instead of enriching it, and confines the mind in a narrow and arid circle of ideas. Nevertheless, it is enough of a philosophy to provide society with a theoretical basis, and therein lies the secret of its strength. The lesson of Bolshevism is that any philosophy is better than no philosophy, and that a regime which possesses a principle of authority, however misconceived it may be, will be stronger than a system that rests on the shifting basis of private interests and private opinions.

“And this is the reason why Bolshevism with all its crudity constitutes a real menace to Western society. For although our civilization is stronger and more coherent than that of pre-war Russia, it suffers from the same internal weakness. It needs some principle of social and economic order and yet it has lost all vital relation to the spiritual traditions on which the old order of European culture was based. As Dr. Gurian writes, Marxism, and therefore Bolshevism, does but voice the secret and unavowed philosophy of the bourgeois society when it regards society and economics as the absolute. It is faithful, likewise, to its morality when it seeks to order this absolute, the economic society, in such a way that justice, equality, and freedom, the original war cries of the bourgeois advance, may be the lot of all. The rise of the bourgeoisie and the evolution of the bourgeois society have made economics the centre of public life.’ And thus, ‘Bolshevism is at once the product of the bourgeois society and the judgment upon it. It reveals the goal to which the secret philosophy of that society leads, if accepted with unflinching logic.'”

Hence Communism is the perfect example of those tendencies to which I referred at the end of the second chapter, for it represents the culminating point of the secularizing process in modern civilization, and it is at the same time a reaction against that tendency in so far as it is an attempt to go beyond politics and in a sense beyond economics also and to restore to society a common faith and a common sense of spiritual solidarity. Nor is this all. As Antoine Malraux has shown in his account of the Communist movement in China in La Condition humaine, what drives men to Communism is not mere economic discontent, nor even dissatisfaction with the existing social order. It is something deeper than these – a discontent with human life itself: a divine discontent that can only find full satisfaction in the sphere of religion.

This strange paradox of a godless religion and a materialist spirituality has its basis in the internal contradictions of the revolutionary tradition of which Communism is the final product. For that tradition unconsciously drew its dynamic force from religious sources, though it denied and rejected them in its rationalized consciousness. In the same way the Marxian theory of history, for all its materialism, is dependent to a degree that Marx himself never suspected on the antecedent religious view of history which had been formed by the Jewish and Christian traditions. Consequently, in order to understand both the religious appeal of Communism and its points of contact and conflict with Christianity it is necessary to go beyond politics and economics and to study the relations between Communism and Christianity at the point where their contact is closest and their conflict most acute – that is to say in their philosophy of history.

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