Thursday, November 10, 2011

Commies and Catholics

"In socialism [Dostoevsky] saw the offspring of Catholicism, an offspring in which the movement away from Christ had taken the form of an open and explicit rejection of Christianity. The novelist awarded high marks to Prince Bimsarck as being the only European stateseman who had understood the real nature of Catholicism and the monster begotten by it-- socialism.

An important point was that Dostoevsky saw the Catholic Church as trying to impose its beliefs on mankind, to reduce its members of its own kind of ant-heap. This policy was inherited by socialism, the offspring of Catholicism."

Fr. Frederick Copleston, Russian Philosophy

Dostoyevsky was neither the first nor the last thinker to see communism as the heir of Catholicism. The Russian writer Yevgheniy Zamyatin, writer of We (one of the first dystopian novels) described communism as "a new brand of Catholicism". Orwell made the comparison a couple of times to my knowledge, once in the famous essay Inside the Whale:

There had been a sort of false dawn a few years earlier when numbers of young intellectuals, including several quite gifted writers (Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Hollis, and others), had fled into the Catholic Church. It is significant that these people went almost invariably to the Roman Church and not, for instance, to the C. of E., the Greek Church, or the Protestants sects. They went, that is, to the Church with a world-wide organization, the one with a rigid discipline, the one with power and prestige behind it. Perhaps it is even worth noticing that the only latter-day convert of really first-rate gifts, Eliot, has embraced not Romanism but Anglo-Catholicism, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trotskyism. But I do not think one need look farther than this for the reason why the young writers of the thirties flocked into or towards the Communist Party. If was simply something to believe in. Here was a Church, an army, an orthodoxy, a discipline.

In Notes on Nationalism (where Orwell is using the term "nationalism" to mean any orthodoxy that extinguishes a man's reasoning powers or fair-mindedness) he makes this swipe at Chesterton:

Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most closely corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent -- though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one -- was G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who was able to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.

(Fans of Chesterton, like me, will feel this to be absurd. You don't have to read much Chesterton to realise that there was no internal struggle on his part to conform to Catholic doctrine. His heart rose up to it gratefully-- he seemed in love with every aspect of Catholicism, theological, aesthetic, historical, social, or otherwise. The only exception I can think of is his admission in The Resurrection of Rome that he found some of the Vatican cathedrals too baroque. For that matter, my own taste in churches runs more to Protestant understatement-- but that doesn't mean I am suffering from cognitive dissonance.)

The parallels between Catholicism and communism are obvious. Both require that their adherents be in the world, but not of it-- the Catholic because he looks towards eternity, the communist because he looks toward the revolution. Both require discipline-- a discipline that can be an attraction to ardent spirits. Before the USSR fell, both had a definitive authority-- the Kremlin for communists (apart from Trotyskists and other "schismatics", of course), the Vatican for Catholics.

They are both overarching theories of life, which supply a man with a comprehensive explanation of all phenomena-- though I think the Church leaves more to the prudential intellect, while communism tends to explain away rather than explain-- its dialectic materialism performing acrobatics to prove how apparent altruism is actually self-interest (much like Darwinism does), or to prove how material considerations are behind all human behaviour, even where it seems to be based on ethnic or religious motives, or to explain why the condition of the working classes grew not more desperate but better in the twentieth century.

The biggest similarity, I think, is that both have an impressive intellectual rigour-- although, of course, being a Catholic I think the rigour of Communism is a phony rigour, but at least it possesses a certain internal consistency (as long as you don't look too closely). Orwell may have sneered, but surely there is much to be said for intellectual discipline; when Peter has spoken, the issue has decided; and Marxism had its dogma, too. After all, only dogmatic systems can really let us think. Where there is no dogma, the intellect pirouettes ceaselessly, never reaching any conclusions.

Is there not something self-congratulatory and lily-livered about the much-vaunted integrity of an Orwell? "Smelly little orthodoxies" may seem uninspiring to some, but personally I can't help admiring someone who gets their butt off the fence, somebody who dares to be wrong. Only a megalomaniac can possibly believe he can solve the riddles of history and life with his unaided intellect; experience should show him it's not possible; and what seems more intuitive than the expectation that the truth, when we encounter it, should be at least to some degree "a hard saying?". Chesterton said he didn't want a Church that was right where he was right, but one that was right where he wrong. It seems entirely logical that a true intellectual creed would require humility and (at some point) a leap of faith.

I admire some things about communists. Don't get me wrong; I think the communist societies that have actually existed have been unutterably evil, even Satanic. But Satan lures us in with half-truths, not with pure lies. There were some virtues in the USSR, for all its undoubted evil. For instance, communism put a high premium upon the intellectual life and seems to have genuinely done its best to bring culture to the masses. I read one dissident playwright admitting that he was sometimes nostalgic for the days of communism, since at least the Soviets cared about art-- even if they showed they cared by censoring it. Liberal-consumerist society destroys the intellectual life, not with persecution (there is something to be said for Nietzsche's claim that real freedom is found four steps from tyranny), but with apathy.

There are still communists in our midst, and we should pray for them fervently. They are generally people dissatisfied with the contradictions and muddle-headedness of post-modern liberalim-- they are seeking to get to the bottom of things. Let us be gentle with them. At least, the words of Christ to the Church at Laodicea could never apply to them: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold, nor hot. I would thou wert cold, or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth."


  1. "The parallels between Catholicism and Catholicism are obvious..."

    Indeed. It's hard to spot the difference :)

  2. Oh, ah....let me just amend that....thank you!

  3. Orwell is one of my favourite writers, mainly because he had a vision almost as clear as Chesterton's, albeit not the same vision. He had no romantic illusions about the poor, as The Hop-pickers Diary shows, but God Almighty, he had a serious bug up his whatsit concerning the Catholic Church. Maybe it's because he identified it with the Falange in the Spanish Civil War, where he literally got it in the neck, but the one major blot on what is otherwise exemplary consistancy of judgement is his repeated attempts to classify the Church as fascist, along with Mussulini and Hitler. He appears to have softened his line somewhat after WWII when the Catholics did not form a fifth column or burn arrows into the crops pointing the Luftwaffe towards London. The most that could ever be said of any Catholic of the time was (sometimes) a leaning towards Franco, but no more, not towards Mussolini and certainly not towards Hitler.

    Orwell's animus towards Catholics is hard to gauge since, like the Church but unlike his fellow lefites, Orwell was not in the least surprised by the Hitler-Stalin pact, since there was no essential difference between these two materialist, determinist creeds. You would think he had more in common with Catholics, but he seemed determined to pillory them. It's not a shining record.

  4. I like Orwell, too. Perhaps he had no romantic illusions about the poor but I know he has been criticized, regarding The Road to Wigan Pier, with sentimentality in the portrayal of working class domestic life. But what's wrong with sentimentality, after all? I think one of the things that kept Orwell from becoming a communist was a respect for intangible notions like humanity, decency, and sentimentality.

    I just thought Orwell didn't believe anyone could take supernatural claims seriously. And he assumed anyone who did was fooling themselves. I know there is the terrifying interrogation scene at the end of 1984 where Agent Smith asks Winston if he really believes in a Divinity or some kind of "spirit of man" that will rebel against the Party's power.

    It's funny because, in a work like the Lion and the Unicorn, he defends a rather elusive concept like patriotism that was mocked to scorn by other leftists, but he shows the same impatience when it comes to religious faith-- I don't think he ever even entertained the possibility it might be true. The Catholic writer Joseph Pearce suggests he might have ended up in the Catholic Church but I think it's unlikely.

    It also seems unfair he should attack Chesterton for being such an untiring Catholic apologist, considering his own famous statement that "every line I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism, and for democratic socialism as I understand it."

    All in all, I think Orwell's case shows one thing very clearly; that even an intellect that is passionate to the point of obsession about fairness, overcoming bias, truth-speaking etc. can have huge blind spots and biases.