In 1843, at the age of 25, Karl Marx arrived in Paris and tried to start a political journal. At this early point in his life he was forging a career as an editor and was not yet much of a communist, at least not yet the universal symbol of communism he would become. He was still exploring and formulating his ideas, reading a tremendous number of economic texts, and getting to know Friedrich Engels. He was also trying to find writers for the journal he and a collaborator were trying to start. Being a radical German in France, this was not always easy…
Language problems were not the only issue, since they had the help of Moses Hess, who spoke better French from a previous stay in Paris, as a translator. There were also political and intellectual differences that made cooperation difficult. Most of the French socialists the German editors met rejected political action as a means to bring about their new society, counting instead on the voluntary formation of communes, without the need for subversive activities or revolutionary struggles. These socialists also understood their social and economic plans in religious terms: communism was the authentic realization of the ideals of Christianity [emphasis added]. The radical, atheist German intellectuals, subversives in trouble with the Prussian authorities, were not at all congenial to these French socialists.1
I find this observation about the French socialists fascinating. First, it highlights that socialist and communist thinking was already in the air and had been in the air for a while. Marx of course did not invent communism, he embraced it. (Again and again whenever communism comes up it is assumed this means “Marx.” But there are other options, other histories, and multiple “communisms.”) Second, it is a good reminder of the fact that communism and Christianity have been understood by some as not only compatible with each other, but tightly bound for a long time—perhaps inevitably so.
The idea that Communism is the embodiment, in some way, of the Gospel is a more commonly held belief than most from the U.S. might realize or even be capable of comprehending. As I have been studying Liberation Theology, and going down various related paths, I keep coming across this idea. It seems throughout much of the world the idea that communism and Christianity are or could be compatible is not a surprising position to hold. We can see it with the French socialists above, and I have come across it reading about Italy and Germany and, of course, we find it in Latin America. For example, this nugget from The Gospel in Solentiname, when Coronel (José Coronel Urtecho) turned to Ernesto Cardenal during a discussion on the Gospels and said:
“With regard to Christianity and communism, some thoughts on the subject occurred to me recently and I intended to tell them to you, and I’ll tell them now to the whole community. Here they are: communism cannot absorb Christianity without ceasing to be completely communist and changing into Christianity, whereas Christianity can absorb communism (Marxism–Leninism) and continue to be Christianity and even be more Christian. To put it another way, the communist cannot become a convert to Christianity without ceasing to be exclusively communist and becoming a Christian, whereas the Christian can become a communist (Marxist–Leninist) and be even more of a Christian.”2
I am fascinated by this idea. The concern, as always, is that “importing” something other than Christianity into Christianity will eventually and inevitably skew Christianity. But if, as the French socialists in the mid-nineteenth century thought, that “communism was the authentic realization of the ideals of Christianity,” then communism isn’t an import into Christianity but resides already within it, perhaps waiting to be accepted and embraced. Huge if true as the kids say.
I expect my dear reader to balk at the possible insertion of ideology into Christianity. I too do not want to warp or water down the faith with ideology. But, while trying to avoid “whataboutism,” I can’t help but highlight the fact that bourgeois and imperialist ideologies have been so deeply inserted into Christianity for so many centuries such that most Christians call those ideologies the faith itself. In the U.S., “Americanism” reigns supreme as the Christian worldview. The fact that there are some ideologies that are considered totally off limits, such as communism, and others that are considered nearly sanctified, such as capitalism and nationalism, has more to do with factors of cultural hegemony than faith. In other words, if one has to have the right kind of Christianity to get to heaven then probably most Americans aren’t getting there. Perhaps “unlearning” needs to be at the top of the U.S. Church’s agenda. In short, only by the grace of God… etc.
So, let’s assume the Christianity handed to us is not as pure as our preachers want us to believe. In fact, let’s assume a great deal of what most of us have been taught from our parents and the pulpit is a false gospel designed to obfuscate the true Gospel for the purposes of promoting and protecting other agendas. (I believe this is at least likely, given human nature, but the evidence seems overwhelming.) Regardless, if we take ideology to be a system of ideas and ideals, such that they form the basis of economic or political theory and policy, then we can’t help but bring ideology into Christianity. We don’t have a choice. The peril of insisting we will not bring ideology into the interpreting and the living of our faith is that we will bring ideology into our faith whether or not we are aware of it. The question is not one of ideology yes or no, for it is always yes, but of which ideology best helps us to extend the Gospel into personal, public, social, and political praxis. I have not settled the issue for myself about communism, but I find the assumptions of those French socialists and the ideas of Coronel from Nicaragua at the very least intriguing.
1Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 118.
2Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 232-233.
3A word about Toño Cardenal (aka Comandante Jesus Rojas): “Born in Nicaragua to a prominent family, Cardenal was one of the ten children of Julio Cardenal and Indiana Caldera. His father’s cousins included Ernesto Cardenal and his brother Fernando, both priests who adhered to liberation theology. Cardenal decided to pursue a career in the Jesuit seminary. After being sent to El Salvador as a priest, Cardenal was profoundly impacted by the anti-Jesuit violence he witnessed perpetrated by the Salvadoran government. Due to these events, he went underground as a rebel leader of the FMLN movement, in which he led the FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación) for several years. He was a major proponent of the peace talks with the government in the early 1990s, and worked towards a negotiated peace for both sides. On April 11, 1991, Cardenal was assassinated by a group of Army troops attempting to sabotage the peace process. However, the FMLN leadership decided to proceed with the talks at the expense of one of their commanders.” (From Wikipedia) Also, his aunt, Violeta Chamorro, was the president of Nicaragua from 1990 to 1997.