Confronting the "Totalitarian Antichrist": Christopher Dawson and Totalitarianism

By Schwartz, Adam | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Confronting the "Totalitarian Antichrist": Christopher Dawson and Totalitarianism


Schwartz, Adam, The Catholic Historical Review


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) is usually studied today as the twentieth century's premier British Roman Catholic historian or as a precocious cultural anthropologist.1 Yet, as Russell Kirk noted in 1984, Dawson was also "one of the principal social thinkers" of his century, whose approach to political affairs was lauded by other eminent social critics, including Barbara Ward and T. S. Eliot.2 Dawson's social and political thought combined the breadth and depth also present in his scholarship with a capacious interest in current affairs and keen attention to his age's deeper social structures and cultural trends. To him, one of the foremost of these trends was the rise and spread of totalitarianism in the five decades after World War I. Dawson's reactions to this political and cultural phenomenon became a crucial shaping force of his subsequent social criticism and activism, for he shared Hannah Arendt's belief that "the politically most important yardstick for judging events in our time [is], namely: whether they serve totalitarian domination or not."3 Dawson, however, arrived at this conviction much earlier than Arendt or other contemporaries (such as George Orwell and Raymond Aron) who ultimately shared it.4 Dawson's concern may have been inspired by boyhood events, and he had formulated his core contentions as soon as the end of the Great War. Although he saw totalitarianism as part of modernity's growing secularization of culture, Dawson also considered it a qualitatively different development, one posing a unique, and potentially perilous, challenge to Christianity and the Western civilization he felt was founded on that faith. As totalitarianism's challenge was fundamentally religious, he concluded, it required an equally radical, religious, Roman Catholic response. Dawson's appraisal of totalitarianism thus subsumed many components of his protest against modern secularism, while providing a systemic, distinctly Roman Catholic, critique of one of his epoch's pivotal and most discussed developments.

Dawson's views on totalitarianism molded his attitudes toward topics as diverse as fascism and communism, World War II, the welfare state, decolonization, America's role in Western civilization, education, European unity, and religious ecumenism. It is hence crucial to limn the theoretical underpinnings of his understanding of totalitarianism's nature and his opposition to it, an investigation that scholars have not yet undertaken systematically.5 Elucidating Dawson's analysis of totalitarianism as the epitome of modern secularizing forces, its consequently unique hostility to Christianity and Western culture, and his expressly Catholic Christian, corporatist alternative to it, will thus deepen comprehension of Dawson's thought by clarifying one of his social criticism's central mainsprings. It will also enrich scholarship on twentieth-century British Christian political thought, British anti-modern protest literature, and the intellectual history of totalitarianism by amplifying a trenchant voice that has received an inadequate hearing in these critical discourses hitherto.6

Abbott Gleason points out that Dawson was rare among Anglophone thinkers in not being "oblivious to the crisis of democratic institutions that Europe was undergoing" in the early 1930's.7 Yet Dawson was even more precocious than Gleason suggests. By 1917 he had already developed an analysis of what thinkers would start calling totalitarianism a decade later, one that would remain essentially unchanged for the rest of his career.8 Dawson held that power had replaced liberty as the chief principle of modern culture; that individual rights were being subordinated more and more to the demands of society and of an increasingly omnipotent and omnipresent state; that these claims were as extensive as religion's; and that all modern polities shared these traits to some degree.9 These contentions demand detailed scrutiny, but their early presence in Dawson's thought also merits attempted explanation. …

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