Slightly surprising piece in Jacobin.
This is a topic that has always interested me, as a high-church, liturgically and theologically conservative, Episcopalian Commie. (In fact my current tragedy is that my old mother church has become too liberal for me, but has never been left-wing enough.)
I personally have never found any contradiction here. I’m not an especially good Communist, or an especially good Christian, but to the extent that I’m either, they’ve never seemed to pull me in different directions. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, the remarkable Lady sings, and hath exalted the humble and meek. Sounds pretty Commie to me.
Jacobin’s writer seems to be asking, Why shouldn’t a Commie be a Christian?
Well, there are reasons. Start with the fact that the great sages were atheists – Marx, Engels, Lenin, and so on. So how can one be an admirer and follower of theirs and yet not an atheist?
One obvious answer is that our admiration for Marx et al. is not fideistic, it’s, well, empirical; on matters of political economy and politics and history they seem to have got a lot of stuff right. When they ascend to metaphysics, they run the usual risk of hypoxia. So these great men are not Moses, charged with tablets from Sinai, but fellow-enquirers with us, like Newton or Darwin. They’re not a package deal. This is not meant to endorse a cherry-picking eclecticism, but to suggest that every reading, however respectful, of the Greats, Marxist or not, is also an interlocution.
There’s another, perhaps more serious obstacle: the default position for self-respecting college-educated people in North America and Western Europe these days is to be an atheist; the alternative is more or less an unthinkable gaucherie. One has to be very contrarian to take it up. I dare say that most Marxists in my world were atheists long before they were Marxists. And why should an atheist ever change his mind, absent some extraordinary road-to-Damascus thing? Atheism is a perfectly respectable and consistent position, after all; and it’s really implicit in modernity.
So I would turn Mr Jacobin’s question around, and ask rather, why shouldn’t a Christian be a Commie? I think I could convert Christians to Communism more readily than most Communists to Christianity – because Christianity is basically a tough sell, as St Paul observed some years ago, but Communism is just good common sense.
For religious people – not only Christians, but religious people in general — there’s the “baggage”, of course, that Commies are supposed to be atheists. I think this is easily disposed of. In politics as in religion, start with the praxis and the theory will, over time, make itself clear. Believers can easily, and do easily, make common cause with non-believers on some agreed-upon project. And a lot of believers started coming to church with mental reservations – consider the famous joke about Episcopalians crossing their fingers when it’s time to say the Creed. So they’re used to this, and they have the mental apparatus to dip their toes into Communism “except for the atheist part”. Some of them will find the water fine.
Lemma: the atheist Commies mustn’t insist on atheism as a requirement. And indeed, I can’t think of any way that Marxism or Leninism requires atheism qua axiom – falls to the ground without it.
The substantive ideological obstacles to Communism, for religious people, aren’t often specifically religious ones; in fact they’re usually irreligious ones, and lie in commonplace secular ideological notions about the nature of the State (liberal representative democracy, due process, rule of law, tyranny of the majority, all that mythology) or human nature (sociobiology and all its hellspawn).
In the US, at least, the curious sociological fact is that a lot of the people that us Commies would like to recruit – in fact, the social base we’re meant to depend on — are self-identified Christians. The atheists are all PMC and therefore hardened liberals. Not quite beyond Communist redemption, perhaps, but the parable of the camel and the needle’s eye (mutatis mutandis) does come to mind.
In fact, if 10% of Christians could be brought round to Communism, that would be (at least numerically) a bigger deal than 10% of Commies becoming Christian. Because there are a lot of Christians, and very few Commies, I’m sorry to say; I wish there were many, many more.