Reading List: Catholicism and Communism

In case you haven’t heard, America Magazine recently published an article I wrote on the relationship between Catholicism and communism. Titled “The Catholic Case for Communism,” the article tries to engage some Catholic misconceptions about communism, specifically engaging an article Dorothy Day wrote for America back in 1933. I won’t rewrite it here, but what I had hoped to do was soften some of the “godless atheism” perspectives on communism and provide a more honest approach to the moral reasoning that leads people, including Catholics like me, to be communists or to work closely with them. In short, I wanted to show that it’s the necessary exploitation at the heart of capitalism and the question of changing the means of production to be truly democratic that primarily motivates communists, not a plot to destroy Christianity.

As you might suspect, the idea of a Jesuit magazine publishing an essay about communism decidedly did not soften the perspectives of the usual conservatives, who took the opportunity to lambast not only me, but America, a number of Jesuits, and in some particularly paranoid cases the entire Society of Jesus as communists themselves. This despite America editor Matt Malone, SJ, publishing an editorial making it clear that this is not the case. (Of course, it would make my career as a Catholic communist and doing organizing work a lot easier if it was!)

I won’t round up these conservative critiques, because frankly most of them don’t seem to have read the article or engaged it on its own terms, trotting out instead a host of parroted lines that you can guess yourself without giving them click-revenue. I should say here that I don’t mind people critically engaging the article, and it would be nice to get some good faith feedback in a longer format, but lazy anti-communism is a pretty successful ideology among the commentariat.

So far, only one critical engagement, by my friend ignatios, has struck me as worth reading, and I encourage you all to do so. It points out several places where my article risks eliding important distinctions among anti-capitalists and, most importantly, where my article fails to consider the conservative moralism that drew many Catholics and communists together, not least against the struggles of LGBT+ people. I agree that, as ignatios says, these are “questions that will need to be addressed if Christians are to play any significant positive role in struggles for the liberation of oppressed peoples.” And I hope that I and many other people can address them!

Despite the hornet’s nest of reactions and a torrent of tweets about my eternal destiny, I have also received a lot of support, in the form of emails, messages, and social media conversations. Some of that support naturally comes from communists (Christian and otherwise), but I’m happy to say a lot of it also comes from people who are not communists but recognize the value of the presence and history of the communist movement, or at the very least think there should be an open dialogue with communism.

Among that latter crowd, a lot of folks have also asked for more resources to think about Christianity and communism more thoroughly, and in that spirit I have put together a short, annotated list of only a few readings to that effect below under the following headings: biblical studies, theology, theory, and history. The list is not exhaustive—a mountain has been published on this relationship—but these are texts that have shaped my own understanding of the two communities, spiritually and politically speaking, that I spend most of my time with. They’re also relatively easy to find in a library or online. There’s a huge list of historical articles to be made cataloging Christian-Communist collaboration across the world, from Spain to China, the Philippines to East Germany, etc., but in the interest of brevity I tried to offer just two books in each category. All that to say, this is an idiosyncratic and frustratingly short list, but there’s a lot more to uncover!


Biblical Studies

Communism in the Bible by José Porfiro Miranda

“Communism” is a spooky word, and it makes sense why. Anticommunism has successfully waged a massive misinformation campaign, and communism itself has made mistakes that should be denounced without qualifications. Miranda understands these fears, and to confront them he writes a short, accessible book outlining how communism is not just compatible with Christianity, but even identical with it. Miranda wears his Marxism lightly here in a way that is sometimes bothersome for Marxists like me, but is rhetorically brilliant for those Christians who have trouble with “Marx” as a proper name. Throughout the text, Miranda reconstructs many imaginary arguments that you’ve certainly heard against communism, and he tries to pick them apart with humor and a clear knowledge of the Bible and Christian tradition. As an introductory book, it’s a great tool to get some bearings on what the relationship between Christianity and communism looks like, and how, if nothing else, Christians should have a pretty hard time being anticommunist given a real engagement with the Bible.

Marx and the Bible by José Porfiro Miranda

Where Communism in the Bible is a primer, Marxism and the Bible is a deep dive. It should be especially interesting for Catholics, since Miranda goes out of his way to engage all those encyclicals you’ll inevitably hear about when you start talking about Marxism. Bringing biblical scholarship together with the tools of Marxist political economy, Miranda shows how these interpretive traditions are mutually beneficial, even if not always the same. And Miranda’s strength, as always, is to combine these scholarly insights with day-to-day observations, making the research feel like something useful. As a bonus, for someone like me who has a hard time concentrating on the Bible when it’s outside of Mass, the text encourages the reader to go back and read the Bible for oneself.

Theology

“The Class Struggle and Christian Love” by Herbert McCabe, OP [link]

This essay by Herbert McCabe is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, and deservedly so. Though some of its historical references are now dated, the main points are still all-too-relevant, as McCabe makes the case for Christian involvement in the class struggle. McCabe does not so much endorse communism here as he refutes both a knee-jerk reaction against it by Christians and the militant atheism on the part of many communists. What we get is a clever and subtle argument that Christians should be at the heart of the class struggle, and if this is the case there are certain people they will meet and necessarily have to get involved with—namely, communists. Like Miranda, McCabe here doesn’t say everything I’d like him to say, but the essay is a great bridge for those who are curious about communism without intimidating the reader into signing up.

Indecent Theology by Marcella Althaus-Reid

Ignatios’ post linked above makes a better case for the importance of this book than I can here, but a few more notes are worthwhile. It’s a heady book, but one that interrogates liberation theology from inside, inquiring into how the preoccupation with class that led many theologians to work hand-in-hand with communists also led them to sideline, ignore, or oppose other liberation movements, not least those related to sex and gender. Many other works of liberation theology also fall into this category, including Black liberation theology, Womanist theology, Mujerista theology, Indigenous theology, etc., and I don’t mean to dismiss them. All of these liberative discourses are or should be important to those interested in the relationship between Christianity and communism, since both communities have historically problematic relationships with marginalized and oppressed people. For the sake of this far too brief list, however, let this be a signal that there’s a lot more work to be done even after the initial grasp of the importance of a communist vision to help Christians establish justice on earth.

Theory

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

It might seem strange to cite this text, but hear me out. In the beginning of the book, Freire says “This volume will probably arouse negative reactions in a number of readers… I am certain that Christians and Marxists, though they may disagree with me in part or in whole, will continue reading to the end.” What follows is a profound argument about a theory of education, but not only that. It is also a theory of revolution, of how revolutionary movements and people should comport themselves toward the oppressed in a position of dialogue. Footnotes and quotes span from papal encyclicals to pamphlets from Lenin and Mao, and the book performs the relationship in a way that encourages a lot more thinking than just about how to organize a classroom.

Fidel and Religion by Frei Betto and Fidel Castro

This book collects pages and pages of conversations between Brazilian priest Frei Betto, OP, and Fidel Castro. It’s an important look into the development of Fidel’s thinking about Christianity, how communism and Christianity can improve their relationship with one another, and what could be accomplished if Christians and communists weren’t mutually suspicious right away. Because the dialogue isn’t a work of scholarship, some of the details are worth investigating further. Fidel also underplays some of the tensions between Catholics and the government, and although he expresses regret sometimes for how things shook out he also neglects to mention some key moments in the early history of the revolutionary government. Nevertheless, it’s an incredible book that should prompt further study, and it’s an influential text for Christian communists throughout the world.

History

Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution by Margaret Randall

The Sandinistas, a revolutionary group in Nicaragua, are often the poster-group for Christian revolutionaries, since the movement was so thickly populated by Christians (though not exclusively). In this book, Randall interviews a number of people related to the struggle after the success of the revolution in Nicaragua, including Ernesto Cardenal, one of my heroes, and many other Christians. It’s a candid look at the dialogue between Christianity and Marxism, and since Cardenal was recently rehabilitated by Pope Francis, it’s freshly relevant.

Hammer and Hoe by Robin D. G. Kelley

One of the most important ways to think about communism is to look at its plurality, diversity, and history. In Hammer and Hoe, Kelley reconstructs the communist movement in Alabama, specifically related to the experience of Black Americans. Though the entire book is not about Christianity, there is a lot of unique material about how Leninism and Christianity had to figure out a way to talk to one another on the ground in the context of organizing, and the book as a whole is a window into a much under-researched piece of communist and Christian history alike. The history of communism in the United States, especially, was uniquely important for me to learn, understanding that communism wasn’t just something people in other parts of the world had struggled to achieve, but was a movement that laid the seeds for so many other liberation movements in the country where I was born. Kelley is one of the best to introduce readers to that history.

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