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Chapter 51

Herbert McCabe (19262001)

The Class Struggle and Christian Love (1980)

While institutionally the Christian church has denounced Marxism as an atheistic and dehumanizing creed, theologians and other church-people have from time to time dialogued with members of Marxist parties and movements to explore common themes and concerns. Aspects of Marxist thought may be discerned in the emergence and development of political and liberation theologies, and in regions of the Third World Christians and Marxists have found a common commitment to overcoming oppression drawing them onto the same side in revolutionary struggles. The essay from which this extract is taken was one of many writings produced in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by Christians arguing that the scriptural imperative to do justice, practise love of neighbor, and represent the values of the kingdom of God compels Christians to join with Marxists in their opposition to capitalism and commitment to its overthrow. Whereas capitalism is predicated on human antagonism, McCabe argues, Christianity announces the possibility that people might live together in peace. McCabe was a leading Dominican with British and Irish nationality, who wrote and lectured widely on theology, philosophy, and politics. In 1967 he was briey suspended from the priesthood by Rome.

Herbert McCabe, The Class Struggle and Christian Love in Rex Ambler and David Haslam, eds., Agenda for Prophets: Towards a Political Theology for Britain, London: Bowerdean, 1980, pp. 1637.

Further reading
Peter Hebblethwaite, The ChristianMarxist Dialogue and Beyond, London, 1977. Denys Turner, Marxism and Christianity, Oxford, 1983.

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Jos Mguez Bonino, Christians and Marxists, London, 1976. David McLellan, Marxism and Religion, London, 1987. J. Andrew Kirk, Theology Encounters Revolution, Leicester, 1980. John Marsden, Marxian and Christian Utopianism, New York, 1991. Tim Gorringe, Capital and the Kingdom: Theological ethics and economic order, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1994.

From The Class Struggle And Christian Love (1980)

The struggle of the working class is not . . . simply a struggle within capitalism, as though it were a matter of reversing positions and putting the workers on top (as in the game of parliamentary elections); it is a struggle within capitalism which, insofar as it is successful, leads beyond capitalism. As Marx puts it:
An oppressed class is a vital ingredient of every society based on class antagonism. The emancipation of the oppressed class therefore necessarily involves the creation of a new society . . . Does this mean the downfall of the old society will be followed by a new class domination expressing itself in a new political power? No, the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of all classes.

. . . there are certain things we can say: 1. The class struggle is not a product of the envy of the poor for the rich; it is not about establishing some ideal equality between peoples incomes. 2. The class struggle is not something we are in a position to start; it is a condition of the process called capitalism within which we nd ourselves. If anybody could be said to have started the class struggle it was, I suppose, those enterprising medieval men who found ways to get round or break out of the stiing customs and traditions of feudalism and thus found ways to make products available more cheaply and more protably. 3. The class struggle is not something we are in a position to refrain from. It is just there; we are either on one side or the other. What looks like neutrality is simply a collusion with the class in power. Now of course everything would be so much simpler if the class struggle were altogether perspicuous, but it is not; it comes in a variety of disguises. In the rst place the simple division into two classes wont do. The basic antagonism that lies at the root of society produces a whole series of mutually hostile groupings engaged in shifting alliances and confrontations. It is almost never a simple matter to decide in the case of any particular dispute which side is to be supported in the furtherance of the emancipation of the working class and the consequent abolition of all class antagonisms. Very familiar instances of these difculties occur with national liberation movements which are always a confusion of different elements struggling for different and sometimes incompatible aims. Nothing in Karl Marx that I know of and certainly nothing in the New Testament provides you with a simple key to what to do in such cases. Marx said:

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All the struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc, are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes with each other are fought out. No doubt, but getting through the illusions to the reality is a difcult and delicate business. What is wrong with capitalism, then, is not that it involves some people being richer than I am. I cannot see the slightest objection to other people being richer than I am; I have no urge to be as rich as everybody else, and no Christian (and indeed no grown-up person) could possibly devote his life to trying to be as rich or richer than others. There are indeed people, very large numbers of people, who are obscenely poor, starving, diseased, illiterate, and it is quite obviously unjust and unreasonable that they should be left in this state while other people or other nations live in luxury; but this has nothing specially to do with capitalism, even though we will never now be able to alter that situation until capitalism has been abolished. You nd exactly the same conditions in, say, slave societies and, moreover, capitalism, during its prosperous boom phases, is quite capable of relieving distress at least in fully industrialised societies this is what the Welfare State is all about. What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes in conict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not. . . . Christianity is deeply subversive of capitalism precisely because it announces the improbable possibility that men might live together without war; neither by domination nor by antagonism but by unity in love. It announces this, of course, primarily as a future and nearly miraculous possibility and certainly not as an established fact; Christians are not under the illusion that mankind is sinless or that sin is easily overcome, but they believe that it will be overcome. It was for this reason that Jesus was executed as a political threat. Not because he was a political activist; he was not. Although amongst his disciples he attracted some of the Jewish nationalist Zealots, the Provos of the time, they did not attract him. Certainly Jesus was not any kind of socialist how could anyone be a socialist before capitalism had come into existence? But he was nonetheless executed as a political threat because the gospel he preached that the Father loves us and therefore, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are able to love one another and stake the meaning of our lives on this cut at the root of the antagonistic society in which he still lives. Christianity is not an ideal theory, it is a praxis, a particular kind of practical challenge to the world. Christians, therefore, do not, or should not, stand around saying What a pity there is capitalism and the class war. They say, or should say, How are we going to change this? It might have been nice if we had never had capitalism; who can tell what might have happened? Only the most naive mechanist supposes that history has inevitable patterns so that you could predict every stage of it. It is at least theoretically possible that there might never have been capitalism and that might have been nice, though it is hard to see how we could have

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gone through the enormous strides towards human liberation that were in fact made under and through capitalism. The point is that all that is useless speculation; we do have capitalism, we do have class war; and the Christian job is to deal with these facts about our world. . . . The Christian who looks for peace and for an end to antagonism has no option but to throw himself wholeheartedly into the struggle against the class enemy; he must be unequivocally on one side and not on the other. As I have said, it is not always perfectly simple to sort out which side is which in the various protean disguises that the class struggle takes, but given that they are sorted out there should be no question but that the Christian is on one side with no hankering after the other. The other side is the enemy. If you doubt this, watch how he behaves: he will seek either to buy you or crush you. The world, as John has Jesus saying, will hate you. Now how will you carry on the ght? There are various pieces of advice that might be given, but I would like here to reiterate some traditional ones. In the rst place be meek. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth; pray for those that persecute you; be a peacemaker; do not insult your enemy or be angry with him. Who, after all, wants a comrade in the struggle who is an arrogant, loudmouthed, aggressive bully? The kind of person who jumps on the revolutionary bandwagon in order to work off his or her bad temper or envy or unresolved conict with parents does not make a good and reliable comrade. Whatever happened to all those revolutionary students of 1968? What the revolution needs is grownup people who have caught on to themselves, who have recognised their own infantilisms and to some extent dealt with them people in fact who have listened to the Sermon on the Mount. It is a simple piece of right-wing lying that those who carry on the struggle are motivated by pride and greed, envy and aggression. Real revolutionaries are loving, kind, gentle, calm, unprovoked to anger; they dont hit back when someone strikes them, they do not insist on their own way, they endure all things; they are extremely dangerous. It is not the revolution but the capitalist competitive process that is explicitly and unashamedly powered by greed and aggression. The Christian demand for love and peace is precisely what motivates us to take part in the class struggle: but more than that, the gospel of love, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, provides us with the appropriate revolutionary discipline for effective action. We still need though to face the question of revolutionary violence. How could that be compatible with the Sermon on the Mount? Well, rst of all, in this matter we should not lose our sense of humour. There is something especially ludicrous about Christian churchmen coming round to the belief that violence is wrong. There is probably no sound on earth so bizarre as the noise of clergymen bleating about terrorism and revolutionary violence while their cathedrals are stuffed with regimental ags and monuments to colonial wars. The Christian Church, with minor exceptions, has been solidly on the side of violence for centuries, but normally it has only been the violence of soldiers and policemen. It is only

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when the poor catch on to violence that it suddenly turns out to be against the gospel. But despite all this, the Church, since it is after all the Christian Church, has never simply professed itself in favour of the violence of the ruling classes, the violence of the status quo. What it has done is to profess itself on the side of justice and to note, quite rightly, that in our fallen world justice sometimes demands violence. This seems to me to make perfect sense my only quarrel is with the way that justice has so often turned out to coincide with the interests of the rich. Justice and love can involve coercion and violence because the objects of justice and love are not just individual people but can be whole societies. It is an error (and a bourgeois liberal error at that) to restrict love to the individual I-Thou relationship. There is no warrant for this in the New Testament it is simply a framework that our society has imposed on our reading of the gospels. If we have love for people not simply in their individuality but also in their involvement in the social structures, if we wish to protect the structures that make human life possible, then we sometimes, in fact quite often, nd it necessary to coerce an individual for the sake of the good of the whole. The individual who seeks his or her own apparent interests at the expense of the whole community may have to be stopped, and may have to be stopped quickly. To use violence in such a case is admittedly not a perspicuous manifestation of love (if we were trying to teach someone the meaning of the word love we would hardly point to such examples), but that does not mean that it is a manifestation of lack of love. In our world, before the full coming of the kingdom, love cannot always be perspicuous and obvious. We must not hastily suppose that just because an action would hardly do as a paradigm case of loving that it is therefore opposed to love.