Dame Rebecca West had a theory that the history of civilization since Christ could be divided into three panels like a triptych. In the first panel, stretching roughly from the Crucifixion to the Middle Ages, the language of theology so dominated learned debate that all complaints were expressed in religious terms, even when the problem at issue was economic or political. The poor and discontented “cried out to society that its structure was wrong … and said that they did this because they had had a peculiar revelation concerning the Trinity. The hungry disguised themselves as heretics.” After a few brief centuries of clarity, mankind proceeded to the third panel, in which the opposite problem prevails: “Those suffering from religious distress reverse the process, and complain of it in economic terms. Those who desire salvation pretend that they are seeking a plan to feed the hungry.”

West, writing in 1949, was thinking primarily of communism. From the Stalinists recently ascendant in her beloved Balkans to Fabian grandees Sidney and Beatrice Webb in England, from whose dinner parties she had lately been banned for being too argumentative, the socialists of her day were united in their endorsement of the Marxist axiom that all human behavior can be traced back to material motivations. The purpose of this logical razor was to discredit their opponents by attributing all bourgeois beliefs to class interest, with religion and morality reduced to power plays designed to keep the proletariat in subjection.

West was clever enough to realize that vulgar Marxism was just as likely to be directed inward. A socialist, especially a Western European one, was often someone who had perceived within himself certain longings that an earlier age would have properly identified as moral or religious, but whose intellectual equipment could only process these longings as commitment to social justice. An entire generation had developed a warped idea of what moral seriousness sounds like, and they ended up pledging their souls to economics as a result.

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