Fr. Laurence Bright, OP – Christian and Marxist (1968)

[Fr. Laurence Bright (1920 – 1979) was a British Dominican whose work and writings influenced many members of the English Catholic New Left such as Terry Eagleton and the various contributors to the Catholic and Marxist journal Slant. You can read more about him in Jay P. Corrin Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II. The following text is an essay taken from What kind of revolution?: A Christian-Communist dialogue, edited by James Klugmann and Paul (1968).]

I grew up a moderate Tory and a moderate agnostic – not very surprising from a middle-class English household in the ‘thirties’. Oxford through the war (I was a physicist, doing rather remote research towards the bomb) at first sharpened both of these: but then they began to react on one another. I had learned from Gibbon (despite his mockery) that Christianity had an intellectual content: my conservatism led me to begin to practise an Eliot-like Anglo-Catholicism and then, through Newman, what I saw as ‘the real thing’ – Securus judicat orbis terrarum – you must shout with the bigger crowd. All the wrong reasons: in the same way they led me, two years after the war, at twenty-seven, into the Dominican Order: pure chance had taken me to the Dominicans when I wanted ‘instruction’ as a Roman Catholic. I don’t give these autobiographical details because I imagine them as having much interest in themselves: they may help to show that the connection between Christianity and Marxism is at least not an obvious matter of logic.

It was among the Dominicans that my Christian ideas began to bite the hand that had formerly fed them and move me towards the political left. There is a certain tradition of this in the English province: Blackfriars had been the only Catholic journal against Franco during the Spanish Civil war. I find a certain irony, today, in being accused of a closed dogmatism as a ‘Catholic Marxist’: it took me, after all, over forty years to get there. The impressions I had gained from friends in the Order was reinforced when, in 1954, I began the work with students which has occupied me ever since, and two or three years later it didn’t seem odd to be helping set up a conference which, so far as I know, first brought together Catholics of the left in any organized way in Britain, This was the December Group, meeting as it still does through a week-end in early December at Spode House, the Dominican conference-centre in Staffordshire.

The ‘Slant’ movement was originally independent of this. In the early sixties I was in Cambridge, and one of my jobs was to run a student group called, of all things, the Aquinas Society. It tended to attract left-wing undergraduates, the more so as the official chaplaincy was at that time dominated by people brought up at Catholic public schools, which effectively excluded boys of a more normal frame of mind; girls were kept out by the chaplain. Half-a-dozen of us decided that the situation might be improved by the production of a journal three times a year – Slant was born. The most difficult decision (after the title – we had first decided on Bias but discovered it was taken, by a journal I have never heard of since) was whether to risk trying to sell it in other universities, which implied a fair outlay to produce something reasonably good-looking; we decided to try, and to our surprise it caught on. Even so, after two years the business became too much for a group of part-time amateurs, especially as the original nucleus began to move on to post-graduate studies, and we were glad to be taken over by the catholic publisher [Sheed and Ward?] who over the whole period has, by his interest and encouragement, put us incalculably in his debt.

Slant then was very different from what it is today, a serious political journal: but what it was then has given it the reputation it still has among that body of Catholic, priests, and bishops who have probably never read a line of it. Although British Catholics traditionally vote labour, being mainly working-class of Irish immigrant extraction, this doesn’t bring them within striking distance of socialism, and the word ‘Marxist’ tends to produce almost the effect it would have on an American senator. They equate it, quite wrongly, with Communism, persecution of Christians, and so on. Increasing access to the universities since the 1944 Act doesn’t seem to have changed their children’s views on this matter, and it was to them we had most directly to appeal. Our appeal, then, was mainly theological: why a Catholic ought to be of the left. This in itself wasn’t particularly alarming, but writing for a student audience some of us cultivated a rather forceful tone, as Newman says the earlier writers of Tracts for the Times did: and it was this tone, rather than the content, which the less perceptive of our critics picked up. We weren’t too worried: the most violent of these attacks, in the Spectator, followed by faithful echoes in the Catholic press, probably did more than anything else to put us on our feet just after we had begun to be produced on a professional basis.

Theological arguments of this kind have got much rarer in Slant today, partly because repetition is a bore, partly because today many of us (as will be seen later) would have serious reservations about arguing to Marxism in this way. Nevertheless, writing here (I hope) for a rather larger readership, I’d like to say something about this theological approach. After all there is a pretty strong prima facie case against Christians being Socialists: everywhere on the whole they have been for keeping things as they always used to be over the last thousand years, and the majority of them still probably are in countries such as Portugal, Spain, Poland or Ireland, to come no nearer home. But this, it seems to me, is because the version of Christianity which most people still cling on to, despite the Vatican Council and similar reform movements in other Churches, is on the whole a distorted one. The distortions cut right across denominational differences. There are in fact greater differences within each of the Churches (including the Roman Catholic, though we used to be better at covering-up) than there are across them, but the majority of people in any Church probably still subscribe to a Christianity with the following characteristics

(1) Fundamentalism. Problems, whether intellectual or practical, are to be solved by a straight appeal to authority. In the evangelical tradition this is the authority of the Bible, but often treated as if it were a document written in Western Europe by men of much the same view-point as ourselves; in the Catholic tradition it is the authority of a hierarchy, pope, bishops, priests and even nuns, their statements past and present, whether through ecumenical councils or in encyclicals, catechisms, from pulpit or through confessional grills, but often without properly assessing their relative importance.

(2) Supernaturalism. God is conceived of as a very powerful being who can none the less be manipulated if one has enough know-how, petitionary prayer of a crude kind in the evangelical tradition, appeal to a large selection of intermediary saints in the Catholic. Christ hardly comes into the picture as a separate being; he has been absorbed into God, except for his life on earth as a wonder-worker, who is nevertheless an example to be followed – how, in the very different situation of today, is never quite clear.

(3) Individualism. My relationship with God is far more important than my relationship with my fellow-man. I am in direct communication with him, and my whole concern is to save my soul, conceived of as the real, if spiritual ‘me’. It is curious how even in the Catholic tradition, with its insistence on community forms of worship, this attitude has taken firm root, so that the mass is still commonly thought of as basically an opportunity for private devotion on the part of priest and people alike.

(4) Spiritualism. The present world is but a pale shadow of the world to come; our behaviour is regulated, it is true, in moralistic terms basically those of the ten commandments, but it is intention which is all important. What goes on in the mind is more important than what we do. The neighbour whom I have to love becomes an object by which to love God and win the reward of heaven, so that love itself seems to have little to do with other men’s actual needs. Love is debased into ‘charity’, which you can continue to exercise even while helping actively to exploit and impoverish its object.

I haven’t the space to give examples of these, and related, characteristics, though it would be easy enough to do so from what Christians of every Church have both written and done. I think the picture is easily recognizable, above all by those who have rejected Christianity because in this form it has repelled them. It isn’t easy to convince them that Christians today are also increasingly rejecting the whole picture and all that followed from it. For everyone prefers a stereotype to something vaguer and more shifting: is hard to accept that the views of a large group of people can be in process of change, and where the change is radical it is hardly surprising that non-Christians as well as Christians are upset. One’s refusal to accept the stereotype is frequently met with polite incredulity: ‘everyone knows you are bound to believe that.’ Let me however now set out what a growing number, if still the minority, of Christians today believe, and because truth is always more coherent than error, I shall also indicate the connections between the points I make. Once again I shall have to leave out the supporting evidence that Christians do in fact believe these things, which would range from the documents of the second Vatican Council to the paperbacks of popular theology written in such numbers for ordinary laypeople today. I shall then consider what effect these changes have on Christian attitudes to Marxism.

(1) The break with fundamentalism has been a gradual process over more than a century. At its roots lies the recognition that no text, least of all an ancient one in a quite different tradition of thought-pattern, yields its meaning to the casual observer; to recover the true meaning, that given it by the original author, requires long critical research -though its results should still produce the reaction ‘yes of course it must mean that’ in ordinary readers. One important result of such critical work on the Bible has been to make it clear that it was never intended to be an authority in the sense of giving solutions to contemporary problems. If the Old Testament in its later development (and another critical conclusion, vital for making any sense whatever of the writings, has been the sorting out of their chronology over periods of constant re-editing and, before that, of long oral tradition) shows a certain hardening in this respect, Christianity claimed to bring freedom from this kind of external authority: the Spirit of Christ replaced the legalism of the ten commandments. With the strong community-sense natural to Judaism and Christianity this didn’t, of course, mean the anarchy of every man for himself: it meant that personal decision, the decision of conscience, was part of a greater whole, guided by the contemporary community, in its hierarchical structure, and by the tradition of its past life. The replacement of community sense by individualism was what caused counter-appeals for an unthinking submission to authoritative voices that would do away with the pain of decision.

(2) Correctly understood, the Bible turns out to be not a series of dogmatic statements about the private life of God but an account of how men have behaved, through a particular history, believing themselves to have been called into a special relationship with God. All that is known of God, then, is his effect upon men, and in the New Testament this relationship is both contracted to relationship with one man, Christ, and at the same time expanded to include every man, since we believe Christ to represent the whole community of mankind throughout its history. This is to concentrate attention on human history in the ordinary sense by contrast with ‘supernaturalism’. Certainly the concept of God cannot be reduced to terms drawn exclusively from this world, but we cannot claim to state what ‘more’ he is than what he allows us to discover of him through human encounter with him. He refuses to let us categorize him as ‘supreme being’, ‘designer’, a being we can manipulate to eke out the failure of human explanation or human endeavour.

(3) Again the Biblical emphasis – and here it links with modern philosophical thinking – is on men as essentially ‘members one of another’, interpersonal rather than isolated units who happen to form connections when it is convenient. While the Old Testament put an important emphasis on love of neighbour, this was still isolated from love of God, so that both were impoverished. The New Testament carefully restricts mention of the Old Testament two-fold command ‘love God, love your neighbour’ to a suitably rabbinic context, its own emphasis is simply ‘love one another’, with the recognition at the same time that this is to love God. This is the abolition of ‘religion’; Christianity is a secular movement, a way of life for people together, recognizing the demands of justice. What is the use, the New Testament asks, of saying to your brother in need ‘go in peace, be warmed and fed’ while doing nothing whatever about it? Men are judged by what they do for others, not simply by what they think, for it is this which through Christ brings them into relationship with God, irrespective of whether or not they believe it to be so.

(4) The emphasis on a future world in isolation from the present one is equally false to Biblical thinking. The Christian believes in a world to come, but he believes that it must first be realized in the present world. Whatever is most real about life here, human relationships that break division and build community, is the kingdom of God as it already exists in Christ for our future: as with the understanding of God himself, its only ‘cash-value’ is in ordinary secular terms, and while we deny that it can be reduced to these, we cannot state what ‘more’ is involved in ‘eternal life’ with God.

(5) Let me add a final positive characteristic of Christianity, its revolutionary demands. Because the world is unjustly divided so that men cannot freely enter into relationship with one another, the world is in constant need of being changed. Throughout the New Testament there is this call for a change that is total, not mere patching-up: we are told that new wine won’t go into old bottles, as the reformist always hopes it will.

Now it ought to be clear enough that the prevalent but officially rejected view of Christianity which I first set out is quite inconsistent with any kind of Marxism. As Marx himself said, it is simply a projection into a spiritual realm, and after that a justification, for the human situation as it is, with all its exploitation of man by man. He therefore attacked those who thought it was enough to abolish religion and all would be well, without going to the root causes which made this pale reflection of the real situation possible: ‘The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.’

What is far less clear, and what I must now discuss, is the relationship between Marxism and genuine Christianity. If Christianity is a revolutionary movement rather than a belief in abstract doctrinal statements, if it is concerned with change in man’s actual situation,with political ways of breaking down unjust divisions between men, then it is at least not incompatible with Marxism in a broad sense. In fact people now often suggest that it is sufficient in itself simply to follow out Christian principles and these will transform the world: nothing more is needed. That is a mistake. It is just because Christianity is broad and general, able to survive from a totally different age into the present, able to exist today in widely different forms across the world, that it needs to find its concrete realization through something much more specific. Even in the first century of Christianity its institutional forms were widely different in, say, the Jersualem community described in Acts and in the communities of Greece described in the Pauline writings: neither form is remotely imitable today. We have to use the forms of institution worked out by contemporary secular thinking in order to make Christian ideals a reality in the world.

Would it then be true to say that Christianity leads into Marxism by a process of reasoning, provides a kind of justification for it? Again people have suggested this; some of the earlier Slant articles came near to thinking in this way. But a Marxist will at once repudiate such idealism.

Indeed this is one of Marx’s own central positions: it is action that determines thought, or at least action and thought are always bound up together. ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ Marxism, then, grows from the situation, with all its contradictions, in which men find themselves: it needs no theoretical justification from outside itself, A Christian has to recognize, first of all, that in itself Christianity is not enough; it can only be realized in a practical way through detailed analysis and strategy. But the detailed analysis and strategy which Marxism provides must then be judged, however critically, in its own terms; the Christian who accepts some form of Marxism judges it as a Marxist, not specifically as a Christian. What I have said so far only shows that he doesn’t need to modify his Christianity in order to do so; he doesn’t have to be a special sort of Christian, a Marxist Christian.

But neither does he have to be a special sort of Marxist, a Christian Marxist. This is the point at which many Christians get stuck. They are prepared, today, to end the cold war with Marxist groups and enter into dialogue, but they are not prepared to take the necessary step beyond ecumenism and join the other side. Partly this is a historical problem for the west. To be a Christian and a Marxist is normal enough in, for example, South America where the culture is Catholic but the social situation is sufficiently bad to make revolution an obvious necessity. When one is dispossessed one is not revolutionary simply on principle; what has to be done is clear, and one sets about doing it without waiting for justification from the Christian gospel or Marxist philosophy. One is Christian and Marxist because that’s how things are. At the heart of a possessor nation, with a smooth modern capitalism that has gone a long way to absorbing the working-class movement into its own structures (the dream of Socialism has ended here in the reality of Labour Government) things are very different. Marxism itself is bound up with the Russian betrayal of Socialism, the New Left offers solutions only to academics, and so on. Who is there to join?

Once again this is probably to put the problem too theoretically. There are a number of points of growth and all that can be done at present is to put every effort into developing these. The struggle within the trade unions as seen in the shop-steward movement; the struggle within education to destroy categorization; the struggle to help the third world free itself from the stranglehold of British neocolonialism are obvious examples. At the moment they are isolated from one another not for want of theoretical justification – the analysis of the New Left Mayday Manifesto is only the latest example of that – but by their ineffectiveness. They are not significant enough to draw people by their very obviousness – as, for instance, the growing strength of Black Power in the USA may well be doing. This is why it seems so important for Christians to overcome their prejudices and enter fully into appropriate forms of the struggle. The way in which, for instance, the Catholic working-class in Britain has been hindered, by religious prejudice derived from its mainly Irish background, from playing as effective a part as it could have done in the British working-class movement is peculiarly tragic. The new strength that full Christian participation would bring to those engaged in the struggle to attack the neo-capitalist system at its weak points wouldn’t overthrow it, wouldn’t bring about the revolution, but might well bring matters to the point at which it became possible to organize politically effective structures that would eventually bring about more radical change. Why do we hold back?

Certainly on both sides there are prejudices which dialogue will break down. I have suggested that it was a distorted theology which made possible the long historical connection between the Christian Churches and social-political establishment. Then in countries where the revolution has occurred in violent form the Churches were inevitably attacked for their connection with the landowning class or colonizing power. Dialogue is needed to demonstrate on the one hand that Christianity is not to be identified with some of the forms it has taken in history, on the other that Marxism is not to be identified with particular Communist parties or the particular forms that revolution has so far taken. But to my mind the dialogue must go beyond the attempt of two world-powers to come to terms and live together; Christians must be actively exploring how they can,without compromise to their beliefs, actually take part as Marxists in the struggle to transform the world.

We have a long way to go before Christians are convinced. I have tried to deal with the problem of Marxist atheism, seeing it as an attack, which Christians can share, on a distorted view of Christianity. Another obvious stumbling-block is the question of violence. It could hardly be necessary to repudiate the common myth that Marxists are prepared to use any means to gain their ends; where this has happened, under Stalin, for example, it has been recognized by others as an abuse of Marxism as great as the inquisition was an abuse of Christianity. On the other hand a Marxist certainly holds that the use of force may well be necessary. When a tyrannical group holds absolute power, as in Tsarist Russia: when a colonial power possesses the land, as in Ireland or Algeria, they can only be thrown out by force. Such situations are already violent, even when outwardly all seems calm because the people are too cowed to resist. There is violence in Smith’s Rhodesia or Vorster’s South Africa; often it shows itself in internal quarrels among the subject people (murder is a commonplace in South African townships) which provide excuse for further repressive measures by the regime; but it is the regime which is the cause of the violence, and only violent means will overthrow it. The ultimate responsibility, indeed, lies with the West, since these regimes are supported by our capital investment, and in the end the violence will be turned against ourselves. The fact that within our own highly organized and stable systems revolution will almost certainly come about more,gradually and without force (for under neo-capitalism power is widely diffused among the managerial class of the international corporations, the banks, the civil service, government, the armed forces and so on) doesn’t absolve us from seeing this problem as one of vital concern to ourselves.

I don’t think there is any very clear Christian position in this matter. The New Testament seems to reverse the teaching of the old on the use of force: and the first generations of Christians, so far as we can see, refused to serve in the Roman armies. But then they also refused to take any part in civil government, and few of us today would want to imitate them in this. In the fourth century it was recognized that the changed situation required different solutions, and from that time on only a minority have refused on Christian grounds to fight. The fact that they have so often fought against the people, to maintain the privileges of those who hired them, need not concern us here. It would be hypocritical to turn round now and refuse to take up arms to restore to their rightful owners what Christian arms in the past have helped to seize. I believe it is wrong, for Christian and Marxist alike, to acquiesce in the nuclear or biological weapons: I don’t think we should refuse to use limited force where nothing else will cure a wrong situation, as in Ireland before the Republic or in Rhodesia today. This is not to say that I don’t respect the views of those Christians who think otherwise; in that sense the question is an open one. But for the majority, in this matter as in others, I see no difficulty in professing Marxism without requiring any special modification to it (‘Christian Marxism’). It is enough for it to be true to itself.

This is why I think that, while dialogue remains essential, we must go beyond it. Otherwise the whole thing will remain idealistic, in the head. That was what caused us to publish Slant. But Slant is still only a group of writers and a group of readers. The next thing to be done is to create a movement at once Christian and Marxist. A movement only comes about when people join together and do things. As a preliminary Slant has begun to encourage groups to form in various parts of the country. If such a movement does in fact begin and grow, not apart from other groups of the left in Britain but within them, there may be enough of us to bring about change within a generation.