The Catholic Case for Communism
“It is when the Communists are good that they are dangerous.”
That is how Dorothy Day begins an article in America, published just before the launch of the Catholic Worker on May Day in 1933. In contrast to the reactions of many Catholics of the time, Day painted a sympathetic, if critical view of the communists she encountered in Depression-era New York City. Her deep personalism allowed her to see the human stories through the ideological struggle; and yet she concluded that Catholicism and communism were not only incompatible, but mutual threats. A whole Cold War has passed since her reflection, and a few clarifying notes are now worthwhile.
Communists are attracted to communism by their goodness, Day argued, that unerasable quality of the good that can be found within and outside the church alike, woven into our very nature. It might have been an easier thing to say back in 1933, when American communists were well known to the general public for putting their lives on the line to support striking workers, but it was also the kind of thing that could land you in a lot of trouble, not least in the Catholic Church.
By affirming the goodness that drives so many communists then and now, Day aimed to soften the perceptions of Catholics who were more comfortable with villainous caricatures of the communists of their era than with more challenging depictions of them as laborers for peace and economic justice. Most people who join communist parties and movements, Day rightly noted, are motivated not by some deep hatred toward God or frothing anti-theism, but by an aspiration for a world liberated from a political economy that demands vast exploitation of the many for the comfort of a few.
But in her attempt to create sympathy for the people attracted to communism and to overcome a knee-jerk prejudice against them, Day needlessly perpetuated two other prejudices against communism. First, she said that under all the goodness that draws people to communism, the movement is, in the final analysis, a program “with the distinct view of tearing down the church.”
Then, talking about a young communist in her neighborhood who was killed after being struck by a brick thrown by a Trotskyite, she concluded that young people who follow the goodness in their hearts that may lead them to communism are not fully aware of what it is they are participating in—even at the risk of their lives. In other words, we should hate the communism but love the communist.
Though Day’s sympathetic criticism of communism is in many ways commendable, nearly a century of history shows there is much more to the story than these two judgments suggest. Communist political movements the world over have been full of unexpected characters, strange developments and more complicated motivations than a desire to undo the church; and even through the challenges of the 20th century, Catholics and communists have found natural reasons to offer one another a sign of peace.
A Complicated History
Christianity and communism have obviously had a complicated relationship. That adjective “complicated” will surely cause some readers to roll their eyes. Communist states and movements have indeed persecuted religious people at different moments in history. At the same time, Christians have been passionately represented in communist and socialist movements around the world. And these Christians, like their atheist comrades, are communists not because they misunderstand the final goals of communism but because they authentically understand the communist ambition of a classless society.
“From each according to ability, to each according to need,” Marx summarizes in “Critique of the Gotha Program,” a near echo of Luke’s description of the early church in Acts 4:35 and 11:29. Perhaps it was Day, not her young communist neighbor, who misunderstood communism.
It is true that Marx, Engels, Lenin and a number of other major communists were committed Enlightenment thinkers, atheists who sometimes assumed religion would fade away in the bright light of scientific reason, and at other times advocated propagandizing against it (though not, as Lenin argued, in a way that would divide the movement against capitalism, the actual opponent). That should not be so scandalous in itself. They are hardly alone as modern atheists, and their atheism is understandable, when Christianity has so often been a force allied to the ruling powers that exploit the poor. Catholics have found plenty of philosophical resources in non-Christian sources in the past; why not moderns?
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.
Closer to home and outside of armed struggles, Christians are also present today in communist movements in the United States and Canada. Whatever hostilities may have existed in the past, some of these movements are quite open to Christian participation now. Many of my friends in the Party for Socialism and Liberation, for example, a Marxist-Leninist party, are churchgoing Christians or folks without a grudge against their Christian upbringing, as are lots of people in the radical wing of the Democratic Socialists of America.
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.
In other words, though some communists would undoubtedly prefer a world without Christianity, communism is not simply a program for destroying the church. Many who committed their very lives to the church felt compelled to work alongside communists as part of their Christian calling. The history of communism, whatever else it might be, will always contain a history of Christianity, and vice versa, whether members of either faction like it or not.
Communism in its socio-political expression has at times caused great human and ecological suffering. Any good communist is quick to admit as much, not least because communism is an unfinished project that depends on the recognition of its real and tragic mistakes.
But communists are not the only ones who have to answer for creating human suffering. Far from being a friendly game of world competition, capitalism, Marx argued, emerged through the privatization of what was once public, like shared land, a process enforced first by physical violence and then continued by law. As time went on, human beings themselves would become the private property of other human beings.
Colonial capitalism, together with the assumptions of white supremacy, ushered in centuries of unbridled terrorism on populations around the world, creating a system in which people could be bought and sold as commodities. Even after the official abolition of slavery in the largest world economies—which required a costly civil war in the United States—the effects of that system live on, and capitalist nations and transnational companies continue to exploit poor and working people at home and abroad. For many people around the globe today, being on the wrong side of capitalism can still mean the difference between life and death.
What Motivates a Communist?
Communism has provided one of the few sustainable oppositions to capitalism, a global political order responsible for the ongoing suffering of millions. It is that suffering, reproduced by economic patterns that Marx and others tried to explain, and not the secret plot of atheism (as Day once argued), that motivates communists.
According to a report by Oxfam released in 2018, global inequality is staggering and still on the rise. Oxfam, which is not run by communists, observed that “82 percent of the wealth created [in 2017] went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity got nothing.”
While entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are investing in space travel, their workers are grounded in daily economic struggle here on earth. In Mr. Musk’s Tesla factories, workers suffer serious injuries more than twice the industrial average, and they report being so exhausted that they collapse on the factory floor.
An undercover journalist reports workers urinate into bottles in a U.K. Amazon warehouse for fear of being disciplined for “idle time,” and the company has a long list of previous offenses. In Pennsylvania, Amazon workers needed medical attention both for exposure to the cold in the winter and for heat exhaustion in the summer. These hardly seem like prices worth paying so a few billionaires can vacation in the black expanse of space. As one Detroit Tesla worker put it: “Everything feels like the future but us.”
For communists, global inequality and the abuse of workers at highly profitable corporations are not the result only of unkind employers or unfair labor regulations. They are symptoms of a specific way of organizing wealth, one that did not exist at the creation of the world and one that represents part of a “culture of death,” to borrow a familiar phrase. We already live in a world where wealth is redistributed, but it goes up, not down or across.
Though polls show U.S. citizens have become increasingly skeptical of capitalism—one Gallup survey even reports that Democrats currently view socialism more positively than capitalism—that attitude is not widely popular among electoral representatives. A revival of socialist hysteria typified the response to Bernie Sanders’s inspiring 2016 primary bid and the electoral success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, members of the Democratic Socialists of America, a party co-founded by a former Catholic Worker, Michael Harrington. Republican and Democratic politicians have made it abundantly clear that whatever their differences, they both agree that in U.S. political culture support for capitalism is non-negotiable, as Nancy Pelosi told a socialist questioner during a CNN town hall.
Communists are not content with the back-and-forth of capitalist parties, who point fingers at one another while maintaining, jointly, a system that exploits multitudes of people, including their own constituents. Communists think we can build better ways of being together in society.
Contrary to the fear that communists simply want everyone’s “stuff,” the abolition of private property, for which Marx and Engels called, means the abolition of privately owned ways of generating wealth, not taking the clothes off your back or your dad’s tie collection. As the popular saying in communist circles goes, communists do not want your toothbrush. Some of the standard proposals in the programs of communist parties include things like providing free health care, abolishing private profit from renting property and the creation of truly democratic institutions in which politicians are not millionaires and are subject to recall.
In fact, although the Catholic Church officially teaches that private property is a natural right, this teaching also comes with the proviso that private property is always subordinate to the common good. So subordinate, says Pope Francis in a truly radical moment in “Laudato Si’,” that “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.”
Something like this is paralleled in “The Communist Manifesto,” when Marx and Engels underscore that abolishing private property means abolishing not personal property, or the kinds of things an artisan or farmer might own, but the amassed property held by the rich, which divides human beings into antagonistic classes of people—in other words, the kind of private property that most of us do not have.
“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property,” Marx and Engels say to their bourgeois detractors. “But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.”
Instead, they write that property should be transformed. In a passage not too far from Pope Francis’ bold sentence above, Marx and Engels say: “When, therefore, capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.”
What communists desire is an authentically common life together, and they think that can only happen by relativizing property in light of the good of everyone. Radical indeed, but certainly not all that shocking to people who remember when the Virgin Mary sang that God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (Lk 1:53).
Dorothy Day and Christian Communism
Dorothy Day seemed to recognize the deeper motivations for communism later on, changing her judgment of good communists to suggest perhaps there is also good communism. Her article in America was written at the beginning of the Great Depression. Twenty years later, Fidel Castro and comrades founded the 26th of July Movement. That effort in 1959 ousted Fulgencio Batista, whose regime was infamous for torturing or killing thousands of Cubans while enjoying support from the United States.
Reflecting on the Cuban revolution in The Catholic Worker in 1961, Day offered a complex perspective on the persecution of some Catholics following the revolution. Nevertheless, she wrote, “It is hard...to say that the place of The Catholic Worker is with the poor, and that being there, we are often finding ourselves on the side of the persecutors of the Church. This is a tragic fact.”
Day reminded her readers that Castro emphasized he was not against the church or Catholics as such (he knew Catholics in the revolution, after all) but against those factions within Cuba that would prefer to cling to the old regime, built on the oppression of Cuba’s people. Castro had not only permitted priests and nuns to stay in Cuba, Day wrote, but affirmed that the church endured through monarchies, republics and in feudalist states. “Why cannot she exist under a socialist state?” she asked. She noted many Jesuits would stay in Cuba to work in parishes and added that the Jesuits already had experience living through periods of persecution and suppression.
But Dorothy Day was not open only to the begrudging possibility that the Cuban church might not be wiped out by socialism. She went further: “We are on the side of the revolution. We believe there must be new concepts of property, which is proper to [humanity], and that the new concept is not so new. There is a Christian communism and a Christian capitalism.
“God Bless the priests and people of Cuba. God bless Castro and all those who are seeing Christ in the poor,” she said. A year later, Day visited Cuba to see the revolutionary society for herself. In a series of dispatches to The Catholic Worker, she reported glowingly, albeit not without noting the many problems the young society had to solve, problems she hoped could in fact be solved with a little communist ingenuity.
Spanning over a century now, communists—Christians and non-Christians—have fought against a violent capitalist economy, putting their lives and freedoms at risk, enduring character assassination, imprisonment and war. Whether or not one is convinced by the communist hope of abolishing private property, it is undeniable that communists have provided a real, material challenge to a global system that the most powerful world governments have every intention of perpetuating. The loss of a mass communist movement, due in large part to an aggressive legal and political persecution by the United States and other governments, has made organizing opposition to capitalism itself a difficult task; but even in its absence, a majority of millennials reject capitalism.
As Marx and Engels put it in “The Communist Manifesto”: “In place of the bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” It is with that hope for free development, beyond the competition of capitalists, that many Catholics, myself included, count themselves among the communists.
So Dorothy Day was right when she said it is when the communists are good that they are dangerous. Communists are pursuing the good when they are dangerous; they are opposing an economic system based on avarice, exploitation and human suffering, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. And in a world beholden to an economy of death, one that is crippling our “common home,” as Pope Francis tells us, and asserting itself as the end of history, we must also add: It is when the communists are dangerous that they are good.