Attention readers and reporters: Is this the interfaith Marxist Moment?

Two recent essays — the first by a young Catholic writing for the Jesuit magazine America and the second by a graduate student published in Aeon — argue that Karl Marx is compatible with two of the world’s major religions.

Both devote precious little attention to communism’s sordid history of oppressing people who believe in something transcendent, from Catholic martyrs in Cuba to Buddhists in Tibet.

The question: Does the debate surrounding either of these pieces tell us anything about trends in the age in which we read and report the news?

In his piece for America, Dean Dettloff responds to “What Catholics don’t understand about communism,” which Dorothy Day wrote for America in May 1933. If Dettloff is aware that Day was a communist before becoming a Catholic, he does not make that clear by the quality of his argument. Instead, at one point he reduces her essay to the caricature of “we should hate the communism but love the communist.”

Dettloff finds it impressive that some Catholic theologians have been friends of communist rulers, and that contemporary communists seem more receptive to some Catholics than in past decades:

Despite and beyond theoretical differences, priests like Herbert McCabe, O.P., Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, S.J., Frei Betto, O.P., Camilo Torres and many other Catholics—members of the clergy, religious and laypeople—have been inspired by communists and in many places contributed to communist and communist-influenced movements as members. Some still do—for example in the Philippines, where the “Christians for National Liberation,” an activist group first organized by nuns, priests and exploited Christians, are politically housed within the National Democratic Front, a coalition of movements that includes a strong communist thread currently fighting the far-right authoritarian leader Rodrigo Duterte. …

The Communist Party USA has published essays affirming the connections between Christianity and communism and encouraging Marxists not to write off Christians as hopelessly lost to the right (the C.P.U.S.A. paper, People’s World, even reported on Sister Simone Campbell and Network’s Nuns on the Bus campaign to agitate for immigration reform). In Canada, Dave McKee, former leader of the Communist Party of Canada in Ontario, was once an Anglican theology student at a Catholic seminary, radicalized in part by his contact with base communities in Nicaragua. For my part, I have talked more about Karl Rahner, S.J., St. Óscar Romero and liberation theology at May Day celebrations and communist meetings than at my own Catholic parish.

Dettloff mentions neither Pope John Paul II’s pointed rebuke of Ernesto Cardenal nor the Sandinistas’ attempts to shout down the pope as he celebrated Mass in Managua. He appears to find the interest of People’s World in Sister Simone Campbell an amazing breakthrough in dialogue, although the paper is focused on a point of commonality rather than difference.

In contrast, graduate student Adrian Kreutz, writing for Aeon, digs deeper into the respective assumptions of Marxism and Buddhism:

For Buddhists, the source of suffering lies in a conflict between how we take reality to be and how reality really is. To get rid of suffering, then, is to apprehend reality as it really is — this is being in the mode of enlightenment. According to Marx, there is an extra source of suffering in the mode of production. So, for him, the point is to change this awful mode of production to something better. But as with enlightenment, it is hard to see the problem in the first place, and the capitalist system does everything to hide its malevolence behind the welcoming curtains of consumer culture. … 

Capitalism evolved around the human desire for a meaningful existence, but it offers only short-term happiness. Why, then, are we still thirsty for pointless consumer goods? Because we are made to believe that the possession of those goods defines us. The psychologist Philip Cushman in 1990 accurately described the ping-pong game between conspicuous consumption and the source of suffering, which is the trṣṇa for a true self: ‘Capitalism treats humans as empty vessels, never complete, never one, without a stable identity, needing to be filled with commodities.’

To his credit, Kreutz quickly addresses the question of what the Dalai Lama might say on the matter. He cites these remarks from 1993:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. … The failure of the regime in the former Soviet Union was, for me, not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason, I still think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.

Kreutz presses for what he calls Compassionate Marxism, which should impress conservatives every bit as much as George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism impressed the left.

Here is how Kreutz describes Compassionate Marxism:

Let’s call the Marxist socioeconomic system that is grounded in Buddhist metaphysics Compassionate Marxism. The focus of Compassionate Marxism has to be on ahimsā — nonviolence. Only then can Marxism be immune to totalitarian and authoritarian abuse, and hence no longer prone to repeat its history. Whether Marx himself taught that revolution is necessarily violent, or if there is a possibility of a peaceful transformation, is a vexed question. During the 1844-49 period, Marx held that violent revolution is indeed necessary, given the stringent structure of the bourgeois system. But if it is the economic circumstances that necessitate a turn towards something communist, and not totalitarian, then nonviolent revolution might be possible given the right political interventions.

I wish both thinkers the best of luck in finding a self-understood Marxist state that shows even the slightest interest in making respect for religion central to its project.

Art: A Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace, Mexico City, depicts Karl Marx exhorting the proletariat. Via Wikimedia Commons

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