Church and Revolution: A Sneak Preview

Added about a year ago by Sacristy Press

Here’s a cheeky peek at Church and Revolution to whet your appetite…

In 2001, I was on a train chartered to take anti-capitalist activists, of whom I was one, from French ferry ports to anti-G8 protests in Genoa, Italy. As it happens, our train had attracted some attention in the press, with columnists solemnly asking whether “those who run riot” ought to be allowed to “run trains”. There was speculation about the suspension of the EU’s Schengen agreement on freedom of movement, and a good deal of high-level manoeuvring to stop the train running, halted only when the French rail unions made it clear that if this train didn’t run, neither would any other train that day. Later these protests would be remembered for the police killing of Carlo Giuliani.

I recall quite vividly ten minutes during that train journey: the train was crowded, the atmosphere somewhere between a party and a meeting. People talked politics; food was shared out. Some tried to sleep; others played games. There was a mix of ages and backgrounds. Amidst the murmur and excitement, the smells of crisps and unwashed armpits, I opened my office book, a book of daily prayers, and read through evening prayer. At the time I felt no tension between radical political practice and Christian faith. Over the subsequent years, I encountered socialists who met my religious practice with either incredulity or hostility and, more often, Christians who denounced my politics. In spite of all this, I remain committed now, as I was then, to both Christianity and Marxism.

Autobiography is not always the best way to begin a book, and obsession with the microscopic details of individual lives is a pathology of the contemporary left. If the personal is political, there is also a politics of knowing when to move beyond the particular and self-focused to the universal and communal. It is never “all about me”, no matter who one might be. Yet my suspicion is that there are a significant number of people in the same position as me, somehow clinging to both Christianity and, if not to Marxism, to radical left-wing politics of some kind. One of my purposes in writing this book is to share my own thinking through of the relationship between faith and politics with these people.

Still, neither Christianity nor Marxism are doing well in twenty-first-century Britain. The closest many people come to collective worship is watching football (as cults go, this has a lot to recommend it), and while I was cheered up no end by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, his is a socialism of the old Bennite type, ungrounded in any kind of systematic thought. Whatever the more paranoid fantasies of the rightwing press might suggest, the Labour Party has not just finished a period of being led by a Marxist. Nor is it full of Marxists. If it were, I would be considerably more optimistic than I in fact am.

Why, then, inflict this book on the reading public, if neither of the practices it seeks to reconcile have much currency? Why a book on Christianity and Marxism, rather than one on football and dendrochronology, or dog walking and algebra? The beginnings of an answer can be had by looking at the months after the Genoa protest. On 11 September 2001, two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and that act of mass murder continues to set the political agenda nearly two decades on.

The events of 9/11 put religion back onto the agenda first and foremost through directing a searchlight of suspicion onto Muslims. Most of the left opposed this Islamophobia, but its capacity to do so effectively and in solidarity with Muslims themselves was hampered by a widespread failure to understand religion. The image of religion on the most part held by individual socialists was (and still often is) a caricature, having more in common with the uninformed hostility of Richard Dawkins than the sophisticated criticism of Karl Marx. Islam is not the topic of this book, and I would not be qualified to write on it. Nevertheless, through showing that religion needn’t be some kind of rival to science, allied of necessity to reactionary politics, I hope to challenge preconceptions and do something to make possible the kind of conversations between the political left and religious people which need to happen in so many communities.

Since 2001, since the 2007–8 financial crisis and imposition of austerity, and—perhaps most bizarrely of all—since the rise to political prominence of Donald Trump, Christian religiosity has been harnessed by the right in the United States. A multiply married philanderer is not the most obvious poster boy for Christian family values: Marxists will suggest that the contradiction between Trump’s actions and the professed values of his religious base show that the motivations of the latter are, at root, other than religious. Trump’s evangelical cheerleaders themselves are more likely to insist that God moves in mysterious ways: who knows if Trump is not one of those ways? Either way, the Christian right is a major political actor in the US.

This is not the case in Britain. Conservative politicians, in an attempt to sustain an ideology of national unity first in the face of their imposition of austerity, then of the deep divisions around Brexit, have made appeal to “Christian values” and “Christian heritage”. But it is not a serious religiosity which is being invoked. Christianity functions in this way of thinking as a backdrop to a nostalgic picture of a Britain once great. This is the kind of Christianity which sighs contentedly while listening to Carols from King’s and eating mince pies, not the kind that studies the letters of Saint Paul.

What religious right there is in Britain is marginal, taking the form either of bizarre outfits such as Christian Voice or else particular mobilizations around “family” and bioethical issues. Whilst left-wing Christians might worry, at least about the latter, as a funnel for their co-religionists into right-wing politics, the impact of these currents on public life in Britain is slight. In fact, the only case of right-wing Christianity having a recent impact on British parliamentary politics is from across the Irish Sea, through the role of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in shoring up the Conservative government after the 2017 general election.

Discounting the DUP, the Christian right is no threat to people in Britain, although people who happen to be both right-wing and Christian certainly are. In spite of this, my experience is of an increasing felt need on the part of British left-wing activists to attack an imagined religious right. There seems to be a generational shift at work here, and the immediacy of contact with US debates made possible by the internet, and especially by social media, has been a big factor. The culture-wars framing of these US debates has also been imported unthinkingly, with domestic strife over EU membership providing the cover. If to be left-wing is to be the kind of person who reads The Guardian in a hipster coffee bar, rather than the kind of person who reads a gardening magazine at a carvery, to be left-wing is surely to be without religion (however “spiritual” one might profess oneself to be). This picture is a travesty, and the implications for leftwing politics of casually excluding millions of religious people from its remit potentially disastrous. In laying out how I think about the relationship between Marxism and Christianity, one aim is to show secular leftists how religion needn’t force a reactionary political stance. Another is to suggest to my fellow Christians that they needn’t follow a conservative path in reconciling their faith to politics.

This book is about something called “Christianity” and something called “Marxism”. But one is never just a Marxist or just a Christian (C. S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity did a lot of damage in convincing people otherwise with respect to the latter). Each tradition contains sub-traditions of its own, immersion in which affects how one understands the parent tradition. Some years back, in an enduringly readable book on Christianity and Marxism, Andrew Collier made a backhanded jibe at the Christian–Marxist dialogues of the 1960s, saying that it is easy to reconcile “humanist Marxism with Pelagian Christianity”. I imagine that Collier, an undervalued thinker whose early death was a loss to the British left, would have thought that the present book is a case in point. I am certainly not a Pelagian, but I do stand in a Roman Catholic, specifically Dominican, tradition which takes a more optimistic view of human nature than those Christian traditions which shout loudest in contemporary anglophone society. My reading of Marx emphasizes his early “humanistic” works, and stresses their continuity with his later works: other than that, I stand in a broadly Trotskyist tradition, firmly opposed to the kind of degraded Marxism which was found in the former Eastern Bloc. Readers should bear these commitments in mind in assessing what follows.

I am an academic, it being just about possible to earn one’s living doing this, in spite of the best efforts of successive governments and a tenacious layer of neoliberal managers to rid universities of any activities not of immediate benefit to what they term the “business community”. This book, however, is not (as critics will no doubt point out) a work of academic philosophy or theology. It draws on these disciplines, with uneven depth, but its point is simply to communicate my thinking about an area I consider important and to stimulate others to think about Marxism and Christianity.


Simon Hewitt teaches and researches in theology and philosophy, and is a research fellow at the University of Leeds. He is active in left-wing politics and a committed Catholic and lay member of the Dominican Order.

To learn more about how Marxism and Christianity can find common ground, get your hands on the rest of the book


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