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The Christian-Marxist dialogue of the 1960s.

It may be useful to survey briefly the development of the Christian/Marxist dialogue which took place in the 1960s between East and West Europeans.

Christianity and Marxism were long hostile to each other and there seemed to be little that could bridge the gap between them. Deep-rooted mistrust and fears on both sides had to be overcome before the step from "anathema to dialogue," as Roger Garaudy put it, could finally be taken. In the 1970s we have come to a new phase of this development which I would call "from dialogue to alliance."

A retrospective look at the dialogue which was developed by Christian and Marxist intellectuals at the end of the Cold War has to start with de-Stalinization and Vatican II as the historical turning points. The ice of Cold War mentality began to melt. Two important forerunners and exponents of this dialogue, both Italians, should be mentioned: Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Italian Communist Party, and Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII. Both broke the taboo of not acknowledging or addressing the other, except in terms of virulent cliches. Although the first steps of approach were taken from a tactical-political perspective, there was a deeper insight on both sides, the insight that neither religion nor socialism could be suppressed by mere violence. Religion continued to exist, even deepened its meaning, in the Eastern European countries; socialism did not die through fascist concentration camps and CIA machinations. The dialogue, however, meant and still means not only to live side by side, but to grow together, to learn from each other.

It is not possible here to go into the details of this phase of dialogue which took place in hundreds of articles and pamphlets, conferences and personal encounters. What is important to recognize in this backward glance is the ideological shift which took place on both sides through the dialogue. What was the mutual give and take? What did Marxists learn from Christians and vice versa?

As long as religion continues to be seen by Marxists as a hindrance for the building up of a human society, as a category of alienation, as the opiate of the people, as illusion and mere fraud, the Christian-Marxist dialogue is meaningless. The new insight into the Christian faith which came about on the Marxist side of the dialogue was to recognize it, in the words of Cesare Luporini, as "a doctrine of the liberation of man." This necessarily implied a shift of the Marxist epistemology from a vulgarized determinism, which renders all forms of superstructure totally dependent on the basic economic conditions, back to the original Marxist dialectic of being and consciousness. If there is a dialectical interplay between base and superstructure, then religion, too, like other forms of the cultural superstructure, is empowered not only to mirror the given facts, but to change them. Religion, too, has to be understood dialectically in its double function: as apology and legitimation of the status quo and its culture of injustice on the one hand, and as a means of protest, change, and liberation on the other hand. What was seen anew by Marxists in the dialogue was this double function of religion, its veiling power which serves the interests of bourgeois injustice, but its liberating force as well. In regard to the problem of religion, de-Stalinization meant abandonment of the undialectical forms of criticism of religion. Vulgar materialism, as opposed to a historical-materialistic outlook, sees religion simplistically as an enormous swindle invented by priests in order to take profit from superstitious people. Feuerbach developed his criticism of religion out of a deeper philosophical materialism that is capable of understanding dialectical contradictions; religion in his view is a projection from earth into heaven, a projected illusion. The young Marx agreed with Feuerbach's statement, but he wanted to know why and under which social conditions people begin to project the best of their inner life into heaven. Thus Marx added the historical dimension to materialism. Unfortunately, many of his followers fell back either into the Feuerbach position or even into the naiveties of the eighteenth-century materialistic tradition. For Marx it is superficial to maintain that religion is nothing but an illusion, a mere projection from earth into heaven, because Feuerbach's critique does not even raise the question why people need to project and to dream and to create myths. Marx himself went back to the needs and interests of people, which is a much deeper category of human existence than Feuerbach's reason and the rational capacities of man.

The Marxists who were involved in the Christian-Marxist dialogue were seen by their bureaucratic party leaders as "revisionists," although they were actually the ones who followed the best Marxian tradition, namely to take seriously the needs and questions of human beings, which cannot be suppressed by a monocausal worldview that reduces any phenomenon to economic reasons.

True Marxism understands itself as the heir of humankind's history, and therefore it also inherited such eternal questions of humanity as the search for the meaning of suffering, guilt, and death, and the need for fulfillment of each individual existence. Therefore, the dialogue taught Marxist philosophers to look anew for "a theory of subjectivity which is not subjectivist and a concept of transcendence which is not alienated." Transcendence here means not a state but an act, the capacity of creatively overcoming the given set of conditions in a historical situation. The transcendence which Marxists learned from Christians or, to put it more correctly which was given back to Marxists by their Christian brothers after it had been stolen by the rigid and reductionist guardians of orthodoxy, this transcendence is not conceivable in a dualistic worldview. It happens here and now, rather than hereafter and later. This transcendence is the deepest because it is the most creative fulfillment of human beings on their way toward humanization.

The Christians gave their philosophical dialogue partners a new understanding of transcendence. What did the Christians learn from the Marxists? In terms of traditional language, I would answer that Christians relearned the meaning of incarnation. The encounter with Marxism deepened their understanding of the historical and social dimensions of human existence. As we all know, the Christian God very often remains a non-incarnated heavenly being who stays out of the victories and defeats of history and is perceived only by individuals for purposes of individual fulfillment. This God is perceived in an idealistic way, for he lacks both the bodily and the social dimension. God is not concerned with what happens to the body and to the structures of society. By being confronted with philosophical materialism, Christians learned to take material existence more seriously in this twofold sense of body and society. Hence, hunger and joblessness, the industrial-military complex and its consequences for everyday life, advance into theological themes. No longer can incarnation be understood as an event that happened once and was completed, but rather as a process of God's ongoing self-realization in history. The Marxist critique of Christianity as idealistic and superficial in its understanding of human victory was now answered by a new grasping of the word that became flesh, which means body and society. Marxists helped Christians to understand better the deep this-worldliness of Christian faith that Bonhoeffer spoke of.

What does this concept mean to Christians who are living in socialist countries? These Christians in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other countries have a new chance to live out their faith without being rewarded and privileged by society, as is the case in capitalism. They have experienced the end of the Constantinian era with their own bodies: their privileges were taken from them, their schools were closed, their buildings were no longer maintained by the state, they lost tax reductions and tax-free and labor-free income. What was perhaps most hurtful of all, their society had little respect for churchpeople. The dirty fists of a construction worker were more highly esteemed than the lily-white hands of a bishop giving blessing. Christians are now only one group among others in society. The dialogue encouraged Christians in East Europe to understand the historical shift of life after 1945 in a theological perspective, rather than in a non-critical worldly one, which sees only the loss of power. Christians began to understand what had happened to them as they returned from the Palace of Herod, where they had had a nice time for nearly 2,000 years, and came back to the stable and manger. Instead of complaining about this new historical situation and denouncing it as "persecution," as Radio Free Europe and other CIA-based institutions did, they learned, in a painful process that is not yet completed, to understand and to accept what was going on. Theologically they learned to discriminate between Christian faith and church-connected privileges, between the stable and the palace, between a rich and mighty church, which is paid off by society for legitimizing social oppression, militarism, discriminatory laws, and a small, poor, and sometimes underprivileged church which only now has the chance of becoming more Christlike.

From this perspective Christians also received a new understanding of church history from the dialogue. Marxists such as Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg had developed, more clearly than most church historians, criteria of distinction between the Constantinian and the apocalyptic Christian tradition. There is an inner dialectic in church history: on the one hand, there is the Constantinian tradition that emphasizes sin in order to legitimize the state and its rulers as willed by God, because the people are not capable of freedom and self-determination. On the other hand, there is an apocalyptical tradition, which is revived wherever the masses become conscious of their power; here the emphasis is on the fact that the son of man has defeated sin. The Constantinian tradition has sanctioned all forms of class domination, from slavery to serfdom to wage labor, and it has placed the church in solidarity with the different ruling classes. The apocalyptic tradition, however, has inspired uprisings from Jan Hus to the contemporary Christian socialist movement in Latin America.

This dialogue between Christians and Marxists was brutally ended in 1968, when the Russians invaded Prague and suppressed the "socialism with a human face" (Dubcek), which was dreamt of by many participants in the dialogue. The historical attempt to reconcile socialism and democracy was crushed down by one of the imperialist superpowers as was later to happen in Chile through the other. At the same time, the most open-minded and progressive positions of Vatican II were watered down or withdrawn from. The Catholic reform movement in the Netherlands was suppressed, rebellious priests were transferred, radical books and articles could not be printed in Catholic publishing houses. Paul VI followed John XXIII. The time of hope seemed to have passed and solidification took place. But meanwhile other forms of cooperation between Marxists and Christians started. They were carried out less by intellectuals, university teachers, pastors, and journalists than by people who organized themselves into resistance groups around the central political and social issues in Western and first-world-dominated countries, such as the increasing deterioration of the conditions of life in capitalist societies, the Vietnam war and its open and hidden military and financial support, and perhaps most importantly the increasing resistance to economic exploitation of the third world countries. In the 1970s Marxists and Christians found each other more and more frequently allies in different forms of the struggle. The struggle may be described as a spiral of violence. The first and predominant form of violence consists in the denial of a humane life for the majority, cutting them off from jobs, housing, food, health, and education. The second form of violence is the counterviolence of the oppressed. This leads to a third form of violence on the part of the state and the police, and the consequent repression and destruction of the democratic rights for which the people had struggled so long. This third form of repressive violence today characterizes an increasing number of Latin American countries; it is a process of creeping fascism, which starts with the cutback of democratic rights, such as freedom of opinion, speech, press, assembly, and organization, and ends in overt terror and torture.

The phase at which most Christians enter the struggle is not during the counterviolence of the oppressed, although there are some Christians working on strike committees side by side with their Marxist comrades and in alternative forms of cooperative production, but rather when they become aware of the overt growing fascism in their countries in the third phase of violence. To mention one example, I recall the Peace Committee in Chile between 1972 and 1975, until it was forbidden and dissolved, a group of mostly Christians led by Cardinal Silva and Bishop Frenz, who became active on behalf of the political prisoners and so-called missing persons. It's a bitter fact that fascism brings about the alliance between Christians and Marxists which the softer forms of capitalism, though they are as murderous in their aims, fail to do. In any case, the new alliances were prepared and made easier by the former dialogue and its insights into the common struggle. What is overcome today is the uncommitted, merely academic dialogue, and it is the street, the urban slum, and sometimes the prison cell rather than the conference room where Christians and Marxists meet and continue growing together.

The march route is drawn up: from anathema to dialogue was a first step, from dialogue to alliance is a second; yet there is a third step, which many of us have taken, others are still reluctant to take, a step into a new Christian-socialist identity.
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Author:Solle, Dorothee
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jul 1, 1984
Words:2277
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