Marxism and Christianity

By Brown, Terry | Monthly Review, October 1984 | Go to article overview

Marxism and Christianity


Brown, Terry, Monthly Review


MARXISM AND CHRISTIANITY

In his otherwise excellent review of Arthur McGovern's Marxism: An American Christian Perspective (MR, June 1984), Joel Kovel comments: "Anyone who, 30 years ago, would have claimed that even a tactical rapprochement could be conceived between forces of Christianity and Marxism would have been dismissed as a dreamer. And to raise the question of a synthesis between the two would have risked the judgment of insanity.' I am not certain what Kovel is suggesting here. If he is suggesting that there was a highly developed Christian-Marxist dialogue before 1950 but that those who participated in it were often dismissed as dreamers or insane, I agree with him. (That is still true today in many circles.) However, if he is suggesting that Christian-Marxist dialogue was almost unthinkable (therefore, not done extensively) before 1950, I would have to disagree.

This is simply not the case. If this is what Kovel means, his comment only illustrates that the historical amnesia caused by the Cold War extends also to the relations between Marxism and Christianity. Indeed, it is ironical that today North American Christians interested in rapprochement with Marxism take their inspiration from contemporary Latin American liberation theology, with little knowledge or understanding of the extensive Christian-Marxist cooperation and dialogue that took place in North America and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Various forms of "Christian Socialism' were common is the late nineteenth century in both North America and Europe in non-Roman Catholic churches. While most groups were anti-Marxist, by the 1920s one finds individuals, and then groups, espousing Marxist analysis of society (and religion) and/or dialogue and cooperation between Christians and Marxists. In the United States one thinks of Vida Dutton Scudder, Paul Tillich, the early Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry F. Ward, Jerome Davis, William Howard Melish, Claude C. Williams, F. Hastings Smyth, Mary van Kleeck, William B. Spofford, Sr., Stephen H. Fritchman, Kenneth Leslie, and many others. One thinks of organizations such as the early Fellowship of Socialist Christians, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth. One thinks of periodicals such as The Protestant and The Witness. (Although its liberal ideology is very objectionable, Ralph Lord Roy's Communism and the Churches [New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1960] probably provides the best catalogue of U.S. individuals and groups.)

While a few of the above (namely Tillich and Niebuhr) eventually turned against Marxism, the others persevered. In their writings one sees many of the same themes and insights that come from Latin American liberation theology today. They all struggled with the Marxist critique of religion, usually partly agreeing with Marx in condemning certain kinds of religious practice as illusory and the product of alienation. They all emphasized the corporate character of Christianity and condemned capitalism and bourgeois individualism. They developed the theme of Jesus as a revolutionary. They usually agreed with Marxist class analysis, advocated friendship with the Soviet Union, and supported the revolution in China (sometimes even as missionaries in China, such as the Canadian James G. Endicott). Like McGovern, some of them drew out the relation between dialectical materialism and Thomistic realism. …

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