The guides of the proletariat were right. The lessons of recent political and social events prove it.”
So declared France’s Catholic worker-priest movement in a collectively authored book published in 1954. Who were the “guides of the proletariat”? The French Communist Party, of course. And how had recent events vindicated the PCF? Well, the Party argued, and the worker-priests agreed, that the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan caused “unemployment,” “low salaries,” “housing shortage,” “illegality,” and “repression,” among other social ills.
The assertion was more than a little strange. If anything, the massive infusions of American cash into European economies had alleviated the Continent’s postwar pains and eased reconstruction. The priests were swayed by their ideological loyalties when they griped that the plan was a wellspring of misery. The claim was, in the French anti-Communist thinker Raymond Aron’s apt description, a striking example of the “Stalinist scholasticism” to which too many Catholics on the left succumbed in the last century.
A tweet from Elizabeth Bruenig over the long weekend put me in mind of Aron’s critique. “Seems poignant,” the New York Times columnist said, “that the major threat of the far left is higher taxes, while the major threat of the far right is, well, Dachau or Verdun.” Her tweet invited a massive—and justified—online counterblast.
Perhaps she used the adjective “poignant” to suggest that the threat from the left might be mild compared to the heinous crimes of the right—death camps and nationalist-inspired slaughter. Let’s leave aside the fact that the French soldiers hurling themselves into battle at Verdun served the Third Republic, which can hardly be described as a product of the “right.”
More “poignant,” as it were, is a simple question. Does a talented columnist who describes herself as a Christian first in her online biography really believe that the worst thing the political left has ever done is impose higher marginal tax rates? The 100 million or so victims of Communism—butchered on the killing fields of Cambodia, starved in China and Ukraine, slaved to death in the Soviet gulag—don’t, apparently, register.
Bruenig’s tweet was also, in effect, urging readers not to believe their own eyes. Night after night, black-clad men and women carrying the banner of a New New Left are sowing chaos in America’s cities. In Washington, D.C., they intimidated diners sharing a peaceful meal. In Rochester, NY, they did that and trashed the restaurants to boot. In Portland, Oregon, they have set fire to residential buildings, police-union headquarters, and a federal courthouse—and shot a man to death for the “crime” of wearing a “Patriot Prayer” cap.
Bruenig is not alone. Many unquestionably intelligent and conscientious Christian writers make claims about the dire threats posed by right-wing politics while waving away those posed by the left, and they do so with a naivete that borders on scandalous.
Aron cracked the puzzle in his 1955 masterpiece, The Opium of the Intellectuals. He observed that Christian witness suffers terribly when the Nazarene’s followers adopt the left’s theories of history and methods of social change. This happens even when they disclaim the left’s unblinkingly materialist account of reality, and insist that socialism is no more than a technocratic tool for improving the lot of the dispossessed of the earth.
This self-deception was clearly at work among the worker-priests, who began admirably enough by taking their ministry directly to the urban proletariat but ended up serving as apologists for Moscow. Why? As Aron wrote, the worker-priests had come to “assimilate the broad lines of the Communist philosophy of history.” In that philosophy, one class, and only one, could save humankind. Only one class was the true agent of positive change. Only one class had access to the fullness of truth, provided it attained “class consciousness” and “organization”—with the indispensable assistance of the Communist vanguard, naturally.
“It is true that the worker-priests remain Catholics,” Aron granted. “They deny that the drama of the proletariat replaces the drama of salvation.” Nevertheless, by declaring that the dispossessed should pledge loyalty to the ideologies of the left that claimed to represent them, they invariably demoted the Church’s cosmic claims for herself to ancillary rather than commanding positions. It also meant abandoning the Christian and classical account of justice for the revolutionary “justice” of the left. More mundanely, the upshot was activist priests who were just as susceptible to Marxist deceit as ordinary, godless Party members (hence the strange claims about the Marshall Plan).
“Sometimes,” Aron wrote, the Christian leftist “reduces his Communism to a technique of economic organization; he makes a radical distinction between religious faith and collective existence and refuses to recognize that the Christian Church does not recognize this distinction any more than does the secular church”—that is, the church of progressive ideology. The materialist left “does not regard Communism as a neutral technique comparable to a machine at society’s disposal.” By the same token, the Church “wants to inspire the lives of each and every one, all the time and in every sphere, and not restrict itself merely to the administration of sacraments.”
Put another way: The priest of Aron’s time could not leave behind at the sacristy Catholicism’s total vision of the human person and of history, any more than he was permitted to bring his pro-Moscow politics, with all its materialistic machinery and atheistic assumptions, to the altar of Jesus Christ. The worker-priests tried and were met, at best, with chilly dismissal and disapprobation from the successor of Peter. Today, Christian leftists seek to bridge this irreconcilable tension with provocative memes: online avatars of Lenin and Stalin with halos and other Christian iconographic touches, the Blessed Virgin Mary as the prototypical antifa bomb-thrower, and so on.
Aron, a classical liberal, wrote with astonishing perceptiveness about the ideological seduction of Christian leftism. “The progressive Christian,” he wrote, “closes his eyes and his heart to this basic incompatibility” between his two creeds.
Bruenig’s tweet about the worst of the left (just high taxes!) seems to frame the left as the one true, positive historical agent in our time, and the right a dark force for evil. But if that’s so, are antifa attacks on persons and property merely understandable excesses of commitment to an essentially good cause? The evidence seems to suggest that the answer is “yes,” although I’d be happy if Bruenig would go on record to clarify otherwise.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, which will be published next spring.
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