Not my revolutionary, not my materialist

Donald R. McClarey of The American Catholic is disgusted but not surprised that Commonweal has published an article defending the ideas of Karl Marx:

That a Catholic magazine would give space to a man who thinks that perhaps Marx was right after all, and who is a bitter anti-Catholic to boot, might be considered shocking to some. (Marx would have found it bitterly amusing. He had nothing but contempt for those who attempted to mix Christianity and socialism. His phrase, Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat, summed up his dismissal of this mixture.) However, this is Commonweal, and it is merely reflecting a readership largely consisting of an aging cohort of uber liberal Catholics who have always had a soft spot in their hearts and heads formost things of the Left. [Terry] Eagleton, who apparently may now believe in God while remaining a committed Marxist, is a natural for this target audience.

Mr. McClarey's assures us, without argument, that Marx "had little understanding of economics," but his main complaint is that Marx was an atheist who profoundly misunderstood Christianity and a revolutionary whose ideas about what's permissible in war have more in common with those of, say, Henry Kissinger or William Tecumseh Sherman than with Catholic just-war theory. McClarey quotes the famous bit from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right about religion being the opium of the people; and to his credit, he provides enough of the passage for readers to see for themselves that Marx's attitude to religion was much more complex, and more interesting, than McClarey's description of it. (And, by the way, if you think Marx was wrong about Christianity, as McClarey and I both do, why would you care whether he thought it was compatible with socialism?Marx might be the best judge of Christianity's compatibility with Marxism, but not all socialists are Marxists.)

The clear implication of McClarey's post is that Catholics can have nothing to learn about political economy from atheists or advocates of revolutionary war. Which is why it's so strange to find him ending with this:

For myself, when it comes to religion I will stick with the Church, when it comes to politics with Edmund Burke, the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, and when it comes to economics, with Milton Friedman, an easier amalgam of beliefs I think than attempting to baptize Marx.

Milton Friedman didn't have a religious bone in his body and was no less a materialist than Marx; the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke believed that the American colonists were justified in taking up arms against the British; Abraham Lincoln approved Sherman's bloody March to the Sea. So McClarey will have to say a little more about what he objects to in Marx's socialism (the subject of Eagleton's essay) if he wants us to take him and his amalgam seriously. McClarey claims that "nothing done by the Communist states that claimed Marx as their ideological father in regard to the suppression of adversaries and the use of mass terror to remain in power cannot find full warrant in the works of Marx." Let him tell us, then, where exactly Marx writes about labor camps, show trials, and the mass starvation of inconvenient peasants. Certainly there's no warrant for these things in the few passages he cites.

Finally, what makes McClarey so sure that Eagleton's article reflects "a readership largely consisting of anaging cohort ofuber liberal Catholicswho have always had a soft spot in their hearts and heads formost things of the Left"? In fact,we published this article expecting that many of our readers wouldn't agree with it. And judging from these comments by that "aging cohort," I'd say we were right. (Does McClarey not age? Another market miracle!) In the four years I've been at Commonweal, I've found our readers to be a various and unpredictable bunch. But what do I know? I'm just a punk thirty-five-year-old. Maybe when I'm McClarey's age I'll understand the minds of aging Commonweal types as well as he does.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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