"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Christians and Class Warfare

If you listened, in the aftermath of the Florida school massacre, to that moral cretin heading up the NRA, he fatuously claimed that there was a "God-given" right to bear arms. Even a cursory review of Catholic social teaching, which has reflected in very considerable detail on human rights since 1948, would show that there is no such right theologically understood. And if you listen to the great moral philosopher and intellectual historian Alasdair MacIntyre, you would know from his historical review that the very concept of rights is an entirely human invention dating no earlier than the year 1400. As a result, people like LaPierre resort to uttering rubbish fit only for the splendid riposte of MacIntyre: “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns” (After Virtue).

One of MacIntyre's great influences was the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe. Indeed, in the acknowledgements to Whose Justice? Which Rationality, the successor book to After Virtue (and part of the so-called trilogy along with Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry), MacIntyre pointedly and rather fulsomely acknowledges how much he owes McCabe more than anyone for the latter's critical responses to After Virtue.

I have previously reflected on some of McCabe's writings on here in conversation with other thinkers who come out of and are shaped by the post-war British left, including Adam Phillips and Christopher Bollas.

But the work of McCabe's that bears on this debate in some ways, and which is perhaps the most challenging thing he wrote, is his 1980 essay "The Class Struggle and Christian Love," reprinted in God Matters.

The language of "class struggle" is of course more familiar to Eastern, especially Slavic, Christians than to anyone else due to the Russian Revolution. Some, especially Americans, may be inclined smugly to dismiss this language as a relic of losers in the Cold War. But as others have argued very recently, that language cannot be abandoned quite so facilely if one hopes to bring about any real political and economic change.

McCabe was writing when the Cold War was at its height, having been deeply influenced by Marxism, as was his close friend Terry Eagleton, a man of the British Catholic left whose books Why Marx Was Right and The Gatekeeper: A Memoir are rollicking good reads. 

In his essay "The Class Struggle and Christian Love," McCabe begins by stating that "the class struggle is the revolution--not just a means toward it, but the thing itself"(182).  He immediately notes that many, perhaps most, Christians will reject this notion of class struggle as incompatible with the gospel--and in doing so find themselves in bed with those who agree with them, viz., Joseph Stalin, Margaret Thatcher, and the International Marxist Group.

But, later in the essay, McCabe will more stoutly insist that Christian participation in the class struggle is in fact required by the dominical call to love our neighbor, and that such struggle and such love may sometimes be found in "circumstances in which even violence itself--by which I mean killing people--is not only compatible with Christian love but demanded by it" (185). 

Later still, he wants to unpack, just a little bit, what this notion of "class struggle" entails. It is not, he begins, just a variant on English class snobbery; it is not about simple conflict between haves and have-nots; and it is not differences of wealth that cause class conflict, but "class differences that cause differences of wealth" (188).

In mentioning all this, McCabe along the way notes that the gospels say nothing of course about these issues, though they say plenty about the dire perils posed by riches and the neglect of the poor. But the gospels are silent on any notion "that everyone has to have equal shares of wealth" (189). And if we think class conflict is about envious maneuvering to establish total equality with everyone having the same share, we are mistaken. Equally mistaken are we if we think we are not somehow already involved in a struggle, and have been for a very long time. Finally, we delude ourselves if we think there is a position of neutrality somewhere here: those who are neutral, he says, are inevitably on the side of "the class in power" (192). Christians cannot be neutral, he insists, but must fight against the class conflict and war.

What is that conflict and war based upon? Here, McCabe's Marxism is most clearly on display: in capitalism the fundamental divide, and so the fundamental factor in class conflict, is over surplus value created by workers (beyond what they need strictly for subsistence) which is appropriated by capitalists to enrich themselves and extend their own power in defense of their interests against others. The system of capitalism has at its heart an "intrinsic" need for class conflict (190).

There is, then, "human antagonism" at the heart of capitalism (192). That antagonism sometimes breaks out in open shooting wars in which the state goes to battle on behalf of the ruling classes to preserve them in power. Can Christians join in? Can Christians be involved in a class struggle up to and including the use of violence? Or is it the case that this antagonism at the heart of capitalist-driven class conflict means that it will forever be opposed to and by Christianity properly lived and understood?

Is Christianity, in other words, always going to be opposed to capitalism insofar as the former claims against the latter the possibility (however poorly embodied) that conflict can be overcome, that conflict is not inevitable, that we can live together in love? McCabe certainly thinks so: "Christianity is deeply subversive of capitalism precisely because it announces the improbable possibility that men might live together without war; neither by domination nor by antagonism but by unity in love" (193).

Christianity must therefore fight the class war because it is ipso facto fighting capitalism and its antagonism which is most precisely opposed to the universal call to love. But does the Christian fighting that war have to use violence or have the right to do so--or must it be forsworn? McCabe, as is his wont, calmly and carefully considers the arguments of his opponents while advancing his own. And so he picks up the Christian concern that any idea of a class struggle somehow requires violence, which no Christian can support. But does it? Does the idea of a class struggle inevitably mean a violent or armed struggle? McCabe says no: "It is perfectly possible to believe passionately in the importance of the class struggle and to renounce all political violence" (183).

He goes on to argue that there is no incompatibility in working, as a Christian, for the just overthrow of the ruling class while forswearing the killing of that class.

But leave aside such principles: there are much more pragmatic considerations to forswearing killing. McCabe notes that any time you go up against the modern state, it is bound to win. You can recruit a few starry-eyed idealists to your cause--the IRA, say, or ISIS--but the other side will always have more men under arms and better arms, and thus will always defeat you. The ruling class, then, is much better at killing on a much larger scale than any of its opponents can ever hope to do.

Here McCabe quotes General Patton's aphorism that you don't win wars by getting young men to die for your country, but by convincing the other men to die for their country--a neat twist to this having been pulled off by the Americans and British in the Second World War, where the Soviet Union lost far more men than their erstwhile allies, and they all knew it but tried to avoid talking about it. In reading The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James 1932-1943 last year, I came across the suspicion expressed again and again by the Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maisky, along with his boss Molotov, and his boss Stalin, that the refusal of a second front in Europe until mid-1944, while not without certain technical considerations, was also secretly motivated by a desire to bleed Russia white. The British of course denied this at all times, and not totally insincerely, it seems to me; but at the same time we cannot forget that a scant 20 years before the British regarded the Bolsheviks as terrible enemies to be wiped off the earth.

And, in fact, much of this is born out later on. As David Reynolds' deeply fascinating book In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War showed, the British premier was certainly aware of the fact that the Russian losses were on a scale never seen or matched in the West, which is why Churchill's chapters on the war in Russia are among the shortest, least attentive, and poorly researched of his entire six-volume memoirs of the war. E.g., lavish attention is given to British battles in North Africa while Stalingrad gets only the barest treatment; Churchill also withheld certain criticisms of Eisenhower as the latter was elected when the former was finishing his last volume in the early 1950s. Seldom has the writing of "history" been so transparently tendentious and subordinate to the political moment.

But back to McCabe. who continues to note that there are other pragmatic but in fact powerful reasons to forswear violence: it takes you away from spending time and energy on the one thing that might dislodge the ruling class from power, that is, exposing its carefully concealed lie that preservation of its power is necessary for the preservation of the peace and prosperity of those further down the social hierarchy. For the moment, McCabe says, Christians doing this are doing the best they can, and are not mistaken in seeing what they see and doing what they do. Conditions are not yet in place for them to be called upon to do more. Capitalism, he says, has not yet reached that stage of crisis where Christians might be called on to undertake violent actions.

And here's where the essay starts to raise difficulties at least for me when he says that "I think...that the pacifist is mistaken in supposing that violence is always incompatible with the Christian demand that we love our neighbor" (185). I suppose my difficulty comes in part from having first read Stanley Hauerwas in the early 1990s when I was beginning to take theology seriously. His repeated arguments in favour of pacifism have never really left me. On this score, see, inter alia, his early The Peaceable Kingdom; see also his memorable essay "The Non-Violent Terrorist: In Defense of Christian Fanaticism" in Sanctify Them in the Truth; and then see some of his more recent works after September 11th, including War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity.

Though I don't know how pacifism works out in practice, it seems to me in theory, that is, in theology, to be true that Christians should forswear violence, for the use of violence seems to me to be a theological mistake in the strict sense: that is, God in Christ has kenotically abandoned the path of violence when, as the gospels make plain, He easily could have summoned legions of angels to destroy His enemies....but did not.

My difficulty with McCabe's claim is lessened, briefly, towards the end of his essay. For he turns to the practical question of how a Christian must fight the class war, and here he issues some strong counsels: "In the first place be meek" because nobody likes a loud-mouthed, ungracious bully-boy advancing a cause; such behavior is counter-productive. Second and further, be "loving, kind, gentle, calm, unprovoked to anger." Real revolutionaries, he says, are all these things and just to that extent "they are extremely dangerous" to the lies and liars of capitalism who view conflict as inevitable, as something one must be well armed against and willing to kill over. In addition, "we should not lose our sense of humour" and become tedious and unpleasant scolds.

But just when you think McCabe might left you off easy, he comes back to say "We still need though to face the question of revolutionary violence" (196). Here he notes with his usual self-critical bluntness that no churchmen have the right to demand nonviolence when "their cathedrals are stuffed with the regimental flags and monuments to colonial wars. The Christian Church, with minor exceptions, has been solidly on the side of violence for centuries" as long as it has supported the status quo and the right class. The Church's opposition to violence begins "only when the poor catch on to violence."

Nevertheless, it is not the case, he concedes, that the Church has always and everywhere been only on the side of violence in promotion of selected interests. The Church has not quite lost total credibility insofar as it has tried to maintain a call for justice, however poorly realized. And that call sometimes requires the use of violence. In doing so, we may not think it terribly loving to kill certain people--the love may not, he says, be very "perspicuous"--but we cannot conclude that such actions, sinful though they are, are totally lacking in love. They are motivated by love for the innocent who are suffering injustice. To that extent, then, we may describe violence not as intrinsically wrong but as at least partially loving.

Here McCabe knows his Christian history in ways that almost all of us today have forgotten. Here I was reminded of something Phillip Jenkins documents in hair-raising detail from just a century ago, and Jonathan-Riley Smith documents for at least ten centuries before that: the Christian tradition, until the aftermath of the First and then Second World Wars, never saw violence as intrinsically wrong and always to be avoided. That perspective, it seems to me, is a purely post-1945 development aided, in part, by popes going to the UN in New York to pound the podium and (ahem) pontificate "War no more!" Until those developments, the Christian tradition for the overwhelming part of its history did not presuppose that violence was ruled out of course with prejudice. Rather, it evaluated the use of violence based on broader moral considerations, including righting injustice and protecting the innocent.Thus it gave us the just war tradition, which tradition McCabe invokes here by saying that "the only just war is the class war, the struggle of the working class against the exploiters. No war is just except insofar as it is part of this struggle" (197).

Having said that, however, he immediately returns to his earlier point to reiterate that "violence can have very little part in the class struggle as such" right now given current conditions (197), not least the overwhelming preponderance of force on the side of the ruling class.

Finally, in his closing paragraphs, McCabe almost anticipates what I said above about it being a theological mistake to condone violence because Christ forswore its use: "we cannot imagine Jesus taking part in such violence; he was wholly and entirely a perspicuous example of what love means; he was and is the presence of the Kingdom itself; we, however, are only on the road towards it" (197).

That road is rooted in the present but already concluded in the future. As a result, we can see with two sets of eyes: the injustice of the present, but its destruction and forgiveness in the future. As a result, Christians cannot hate anybody, even those who exploit the poor or inflict other injustices. The Christian engaged in class warfare can only do so once he understands that "hatred is impossible" and that even one's class enemies are those for whom Christ also died.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...