There has been a major verbal fray over Dean Detloff’s essay in the Jesuit-run America Magazine, “The Catholic Case for Communism.” Rather than detail the obvious historical gaps in Detloff’s apologia pro Karl Marx—i.e., the misery and oppression that accompanies every Communist regime to achieve power (without exception)—I want to approach the subject on a philosophical and psychological level.
As a former college radical I can, without indulging in platitudes, say that I sympathize with the motives that attract people to revolutionary political creeds. By that same token I don’t always assume that those justifications are inherently noble…. only because I can remember by own motivations very well. How much of radicalism is born of the desire to really help others? How much is it to gratify egos, defer everyday responsibility, to indulge in envy and hatred? I cannot make a blanket statement. But those are questions that have to be asked.
Detlaff’s essay is essentially a continuation of a famous 1933 article by Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert who never really left off her old socialist assumptions. She pleads that “It is because of the Communist party’s ideals, not because of its essential anti-religious aspect; because of its love of the ordinary man, and not because of its hatred towards God, that so many young people are being attracted towards Communism.” Day grew even more optimistic about Christian/Communist rapprochement in the early days of Castro’s Cuba. In a 1961 article she took at face value the dictator’s protestations that he was not anti-religious. There is of course some truth to her observation about why people adopt Marxist beliefs. But it I think it concedes too much. It also fails to note that many former-Marxists have come to firmly reject the principles and practices that Day eulogizes—I am thinking of people like Raymond Aron, Whittaker Chambers, Thomas Sowell, and David Horowitz.
The real question for someone like Detlaff is why does one, as a Christian, need Communism in the first place? Marxism is essentially a political religion in terms of its faith in utopia. Assumptions about human nature are completely different from those of Christianity, as are the means of dealing with human conflict and injustice. Scruton makes the point in The Uses of Pessimism (which I reviewed recently) that our civilization grew out of an appreciation of the moral quality of forgiveness and the importance of institutions designed to mitigate resentment. Yet Communism is predicated on the very opposite view.
I trust that Detlaff is not knowingly a proponent of totalitarianism. Still, I question his intellectual acumen. Putting aside questions of propaganda and controversy, Marxism is the negation of transcendent religious belief. You simply can’t have it both ways.