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Marxism and Christianity.


In his otherwise excellent review of Arthur McGovern's Marxism: An American Christian Perspective (MR, June 1984), Joel Kovel comments: "Anyone who, 30 years ago, would have claimed that even a tactical rapprochement could be conceived between forces of Christianity and Marxism would have been dismissed as a dreamer. And to raise the question of a synthesis between the two would have risked the judgment of insanity.' I am not certain what Kovel is suggesting here. If he is suggesting that there was a highly developed Christian-Marxist dialogue before 1950 but that those who participated in it were often dismissed as dreamers or insane, I agree with him. (That is still true today in many circles.) However, if he is suggesting that Christian-Marxist dialogue was almost unthinkable (therefore, not done extensively) before 1950, I would have to disagree.

This is simply not the case. If this is what Kovel means, his comment only illustrates that the historical amnesia caused by the Cold War extends also to the relations between Marxism and Christianity. Indeed, it is ironical that today North American Christians interested in rapprochement with Marxism take their inspiration from contemporary Latin American liberation theology, with little knowledge or understanding of the extensive Christian-Marxist cooperation and dialogue that took place in North America and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Various forms of "Christian Socialism' were common is the late nineteenth century in both North America and Europe in non-Roman Catholic churches. While most groups were anti-Marxist, by the 1920s one finds individuals, and then groups, espousing Marxist analysis of society (and religion) and/or dialogue and cooperation between Christians and Marxists. In the United States one thinks of Vida Dutton Scudder, Paul Tillich, the early Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry F. Ward, Jerome Davis, William Howard Melish, Claude C. Williams, F. Hastings Smyth, Mary van Kleeck, William B. Spofford, Sr., Stephen H. Fritchman, Kenneth Leslie, and many others. One thinks of organizations such as the early Fellowship of Socialist Christians, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth. One thinks of periodicals such as The Protestant and The Witness. (Although its liberal ideology is very objectionable, Ralph Lord Roy's Communism and the Churches [New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1960] probably provides the best catalogue of U.S. individuals and groups.)

While a few of the above (namely Tillich and Niebuhr) eventually turned against Marxism, the others persevered. In their writings one sees many of the same themes and insights that come from Latin American liberation theology today. They all struggled with the Marxist critique of religion, usually partly agreeing with Marx in condemning certain kinds of religious practice as illusory and the product of alienation. They all emphasized the corporate character of Christianity and condemned capitalism and bourgeois individualism. They developed the theme of Jesus as a revolutionary. They usually agreed with Marxist class analysis, advocated friendship with the Soviet Union, and supported the revolution in China (sometimes even as missionaries in China, such as the Canadian James G. Endicott). Like McGovern, some of them drew out the relation between dialectical materialism and Thomistic realism. Some of them related Marxist unity of theory and practice with the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition (that is, true religion as a way of life prior to cult or doctrine). Most of them sought the revolutionary overturn of North American society, relating the new order with the Kingdom of God. Most of them worked actively with members of the Communist Party in various political action groups. Most of them condemned the Roman Catholic Church as fascist. (One of them, F. Hastings Smyth, wrote an article, "Religion and Socialism,' advocating rapprochement between Christianity and Marxism in one of the first issues of MONTHLY REVIEW [1, no. 3 (1949): 72-79].)

A similar group of Christians either open to Marxism or actually regarding themselves as Christian Marxists was active in England in the same period. One thinks of Conrad Noel, John Macmurray, Hewlett Johnson, Stanley Evans, and many others, as well as English missionaries such as Michael Scott in South Africa. The symposium Christianity and the Social Revolution, edited by John Lewis, Karl Polanyi, and Donald K. Kitchen (London: Victor Gollancz, 1935) and containing essays by W. H. Auden, Noel, Joseph Needham, Macmurray, Julius F. Hecker, Nieburhr, and others, is perhaps the most outstanding contribution of the early English advocates of Christian-Marxist dialogue and cooperation. Christian-Marxist developments in England influenced developments in North America and vice versa.

Despite their contribution to Christian-Marxist dialogue, the above individuals and groups are today largely unknown (except for Niebuhr and Tillich, and they not for their Marxism), either to newer generations of Marxists or newer generations of Christians, whether in North America or elsewhere. With the Cold War, their books were not reprinted and their names not mentioned in seminary or university courses or the press. It is said that with the rise of Niebuhr (a strong anti-Communist after the late 1930s) at Union Seminary in New York City, all memory of his former colleague, the Christian-Marxist theologian Harry F. Ward, was obliterated.

One of the important insights of Latin American theology is the importance of the context in which one is theologizing. The present North American situation is different form the Latin American one, and the dialogue, cooperation, and synthesis taking place there cannot simply be transferred to the North American setting, although we have much to learn from the developments there. (That Christian Marxism has become a genuinely popular movement, for example, marks it off from earlier Christian-Marxist dialogue and cooperation.) And certainly too, North America in the 1930s and 1940s is different from North America today; Christian Marxism of that era cannot simply be transferred into our situation.

Yet there are still many similarities in context between North America today and North America fifty years ago, such that there is much we can learn from this earlier dialogue and cooperation. This insight is sometimes absent from contemporary discussions of Christianity and Marxism (such as McGovern's) that move quickly from the Latin American situation to the North American one. Dialogue, cooperation, and synthesis between Christianity and Marxism in North America and Europe are not new. Contemporary practitioners on both sides have much to learn from their North American and European predecessors.
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Author:Brown, Terry
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Oct 1, 1984
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