Thursday, August 30, 2018

The talks were held in a sincere spirit

"A Christian-Communist Dialogue" is an old book, published in 1968. It features a written exchange of opinions between French Communist intellectual Roger Garaudy and American Jesuit and Hegel scholar Quentin Lauer. I know next to nothing about the latter, but Garaudy is/was well-known (he died last year). He seems to have been the French Communist Party's (PCF) resident expert on religion, and was also an elected Communist politician. Garaudy eventually developed political and philosophical differences with the PCF, and was expelled in 1970. At least one quasi-official book criticizing Garaudy was issued in the Soviet Union and translated to several foreign languages, showing that Moscow feared his influence (at least among intellectuals). Ironically, the erstwhile Marxist critic of religion eventually became religious himself, first a Catholic and later a Muslim. During his Muslim phase, Garaudy wrote "The Founding Myths of Modern Israel", a work accused of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.

Garaudy's attempted dialogue with Lauer took place when the Soviet Union had repudiated the worst excesses of Stalinism, so in this work the French Communist is pro-Khrushchev. I happen to have an earlier work by Garaudy (also on religion) in which he is pro-Stalin! I read about half of the Garaudy-Lauer dialogue, found it boring and monotonous, and only skimmed the rest. Garaudy's project is to woo Christians, including Catholics, and have them join a united front or popular front with the Communists against the Vietnam War and American hegemonism. Garaudy also favours cooperation to end the arms race and world poverty. It's much less clear what Lauer wants to accomplish. While he does ask many critical questions, he nevertheless comes across as something of a confused intellectual. Garaudy, as can be expected from a high-ranking PCF member, sounds more coherent.

Garaudy attempts to use liberal and Neo-Orthodox Christian theology to his advantage. Thus, he believes that Karl Barth made God so super-transcendent, that man de facto becomes autonomous. He also references Bonhoeffer, Harvey Cox and some Latin Americans I take to be precursors of liberation theology. Garaudy attempts to recast Christian terms in a humanist vein, as when proposing that "transcendence" means that man can creatively decide and build his own future, hence "transcending" himself. He also proposes that God's work can be furthered by non-believers, as when the Cuban Communist-atheist government has abolished illiteracy and prostitution. Garaudy even finds a Biblical precedent for this (the usual one): Persian king Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from the Babylonian captivity despite himself being a non-believer in the God of Israel.

The Communist writer sharply criticizes the Catholic hierarchy, pointing out that Pope Paul VI didn't criticize Portugal's colonial war in Angola during a visit to Fatima. Nor did the pope censor Cardinal Spellman for his outspoken support of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (Spellman was the Catholic archbishop of New York). Garaudy also complains that the Polish hierarchy consistently voted with the conservative minority at Vatican II. At the time, Poland had a Communist government. Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary is another target for condemnation. And while the social encyclicals adopted in the wake of Vatican II are a step in the right direction, Garaudy doesn't believe that they go far enough. On paper, the French Communist senator supports multi-party democracy under socialism, and different national paths to revolution, but in practice, he staunchly defends the Soviet Union in a manner bordering the surreal. Apparently, the Berlin Wall is purely defensive, while the 1956 Hungarian uprising really was fascist!

Lauer retorts by constantly questioning whether Garaudy and other Communists are sincere when advocating multi-party democracy or freedom of religion. He also wonders whether Communists or Marxists can even in principle be for freedom of religion, since they regard religion as a form of alienation to be overcome under socialism. Isn't the dialogue between Communists and Christians some kind of clever political manoeuvre from the Communist side? Lauer defends the social encyclicals, and attempts to sidestep the conservative stances of the papacy, with which he seems to be uncomfortable. The Jesuit writer also questions whether Garaudy can have a firm basis for objective morality. Doesn't the dialectic lead to moral relativism? Garaudy attempts to respond that everything that increases man's power over nature, or abolishes man's exploitation of man, is "historical" and therefore moral, but Lauer points out that this too must be justified somehow. How can it be justified apart from God? Lauer also worries about the fate of individual responsibility and conscience in a one party state convinced of its own "historical" and "rational" character, to which Garaudy sarcastically responds that this is surely a strange criticism of Communism from a Jesuit and Catholic, who believes in papal infallibility!

In the end, I don't think the debate between Roger Garaudy P.C.F. and Quentin Lauer S. J. reaches any interesting conclusions. Lauer does seem opposed to capitalism, and favours some kind of socialistic system, but he is clearly no Communist. The exchange on Hungary is particularly acrimonious. Garaudy, for his part, has a tendency to monologue rather than dialogue, perhaps out of frustration with not getting anywhere with the Jesuit padre? The most interesting section of the discussion are Garaudy's quasi-theological speculation, surely unusual for an atheist, pro-Soviet Communist. As already mentioned, the French intellectual ended up becoming religious.

In the end, I will only give "A Christian-Communist Dialogue" two stars.

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