In his latest book, Radical Sacrifice, prolific scholar and literary critic Terry Eagleton continues the defense of Marxism he took up forcefully in his 2011 volume, Why Marx Was Right. Here, as in so many of his other writings, Eagleton makes the case—forthrightly, eruditely, and with flashes of brilliant wit—that Marxism is not just a relic of the past, but a viable way to envision and welcome a better future.
Yet Eagleton is not your typical, ivory-tower defender of dialectical materialism. What makes Eagleton rare among his academic peers is that he is as unapologetically Catholic as he is unapologetically Marxist. In Radical Sacrifice, Eagleton continues inching closer to his goal of somehow melding Marxism and Catholicism into a common order.
Unfortunately, the elephant in the room—the question whether these two radically conflicting anthropologies can truly coexist—looms even larger at the end of the book than at the beginning. There is little hope that Eagleton’s project will succeed. Indeed, everything in historical experience and doctrinal fact suggests that it will fail. Eagleton’s Marxist-Catholic prescriptions are intriguing, but, over the course of the book, it becomes clear that he is advocating not a blend of the two but a subordination of one to the other.
The Anawim: A Biblical Proletariat?
Eagleton’s Marxism does not trade in the usual vocabulary of the genre. His is a kind of Scripture- and Great Books–based meditation on the dynamics of Marxist thought. The key to Eagleton’s program for Catholic Marxism is the concept of the “anawim.” Eagleton sees the anawim—the Biblical Hebrew term for the outcast and the poor, whose only deliverance is Yahweh—as a kind of proletariat imbued with metaphysical power. Through the modern-day anawim, Eagleton argues, the prevailing systems of the world will be destabilized. Drawing deeply on the history of sacrifice in the Judeo-Christian West, Eagleton would have the anawim perform a Bakhtinian carnivalesque in opposition to the dominant socioeconomic and political paradigm.
Like the stone that was rejected but has now become the cornerstone, the poor of the earth will usher in a new order by revealing the “hubris” of the world that ignored their suffering, and thereby become an instrument of salvation. “For Christian faith,” Eagleton writes,
God is present most fundamentally in the dispossessed. Their loss of humanity reflects his own non-human otherness, as well as the terrifyingly inhuman nature of his unconditional love. The poor are signs of Yahweh in the fact that they are dependent on him alone, having been abandoned by all human powers.
It is precisely in their wretchedness that Eagleton sees the poor at the height of their supernatural and earthly power. In his death, Jesus of Nazareth dashed the hopes of those who thought he came to lead a political revolution. By contrast, Eagleton does want to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to earth, and he wants the poor to inspire us to do it.
Eagleton contends that the poor “by their mere existence . . . signify what is still politically to be done to help achieve [the kingdom]. They are a sign of the unfinished business of history, and in this sense testimony to what must still be accomplished.” When Eagleton speaks approvingly of “the impending upheaval which Marx calls communism and the Christian Gospel calls the kingdom of God,” he means to link Marxist revolution and the ancient Christian understanding of sacrifice. In his vision, human beings ought to revolt by refusing to offer themselves up to the idol of capital any more, sacrificing instead for a more just social order.
Unlike Marx, who saw the working classes slaving away in the capitalists’ factories as the drivers of Hegelian historical change—or even Mao, who famously replaced the workers with the peasants as the lit fuses of socialist revolution—Eagleton’s Marxism places the burden of advancing the dialectic on the shoulders of the poor. For Eagleton, the anawim are not a class so much as a Biblical people, the wretched of the earth who find special favor in God’s eyes. The justice they are to bring about is not the “cunning of history,” but the will of God.
This point is important. In positing the anawim as the new proletariat, Eagleton expects that the rest of us, the non-anawim who enjoy the comforts of capitalism’s material bounty, will not be forced to play out the Marxist drama of history by political violence at the barrel of a gun (as Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-Il, Fidel Castro, and others in the Marxist line all enthusiastically believed). Rather, we are to be inspired by the poor in our midst to make the changes necessary to bring about a more just world for all. In other words, instead of the anawim seizing the means of production and sending all the factory owners and petty bourgeoisie to the guillotine, they will manifest the love of God to society as a whole, which will in turn transform us all into a more compassionate and loving community.
Marxist overtones aside, this sounds at least somewhat like what Jesus was talking about in many of his parables, including of course the Sermon on the Mount. The poor, the sorrowing, the neglected, the scorned—these least of us will be raised up, he said, while the proud today will tomorrow be found wanting.
More concretely, Eagleton hints that the Catholic Church might provide the model for the society that he seeks. Radical Sacrifice is dedicated to the Carmelite sisters of Thicket Priory in York, England. The nuns there are discalced―“shoeless”―meaning they wear sandals and in all ways adhere to the rigors of the old rule laid down by St. Teresa of Ávila nearly five hundred years ago. Radical communion and solidarity, a society based on love and situated on the far margins of the world, a gathering of people who embrace poverty and reach out in charity to the poor: if there is a community of upliftingly transgressive sacrifice anywhere of the kind that Eagleton seeks, then surely this is it.
But Eagleton is not content with our simply living out the Beatitudes. The Carmelites are a good start, but they are not nearly enough. St. Teresa of Calcutta can collect the outcast from the gutters of the world all she wants, but such good deeds will simply not do for Eagleton’s outsized vision. In the end, Eagleton wants something radically different from what Christ described—not compassion for the poor now and the settling of accounts later, on God’s terms, but the leveling of social difference and the final reckoning right here and now. Charity, that is to say, but of a kind that checks your political credentials.
Violent Utopianism vs. Christian Love
This is where the trouble arises. Can Christianity, centered on God’s death in the context of dashed human hopes for a political kingdom, really “transition” (as Eagleton hopes) to Marxism, which seeks utopia in the present and has never proven itself chary of using violence to get it? Given Marxism’s dismal track record with religion, how can Eagleton be sure that, this time, Marxism will be able to sacrifice its true nature—implacable hostility to religious faith—in order to take on the self-emptying love and gentleness, non-violence, and patient forbearance that so sharply distinguish the Carmelite sisters’ Christianity from what Eagleton argues is its rightful heir? By the same token, can Christianity—one of whose subplots is bitter political disappointment—“transition” to a doctrine of radical politicization and class warfare?
While Marxist history should be bloody enough to give all but the most enthusiastic utopians pause, there is perhaps no better refutation of Eagleton’s working theory than the body of work of Karol Wojtyła, the Bishop of Kraków who became Pope John Paul II. During his ministry in communist Poland, Wojtyła experienced firsthand Marxism’s appalling violence against Christians and all other religious believers. One might have expected Wojtyła, therefore, to denounce Marxism based on the historical facts of its irrepressible butchery of all people of faith.
However, as pope, John Paul II chose to denounce Marxism for its fundamental incompatibility with the Catholic Faith—on intellectual and theological grounds, in other words, and not for the countless examples of its real-world barbarism. Marxism could not be a partner to Christianity, Wojtyła taught, because it was implacably hostile to God, and to the Christian understanding of man.
As he wrote in his 1986 encyclical, Dominum et Vivificantem,
[Hostility to the Holy Spirit] reaches its clearest expression in materialism, both in its theoretical form: as a system of thought, and in its practical form: as a method of interpreting and evaluating facts, and likewise as a program of corresponding conduct. The system which has developed most and carried to its extreme practical consequences this form of thought, ideology, and praxis is dialectical and historical materialism, which is still recognized as the essential core of Marxism. In principle and in fact, materialism radically excludes the presence and action of God, who is spirit, in the world and above all in man. Fundamentally this is because it does not accept God’s existence, being a system that is essentially and systematically atheistic.
The reason why Marxism is “systematically atheistic” is given by Marx himself in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.
Mankind Is Not a Mindless Collective—We Are Individuals in Relationship with Christ
The essence of Marx’s historical anthropology is the mindless, collectivist, predestined, inexorable instrumentalization of man as a tool of history, the reduction of man by dialectical materialism to a nameless, faceless cast of extras in the main drama of the clash between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Marx’s denial of individual free will shuts the door fast against the Holy Spirit’s working in each person’s heart. As Marx puts it:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
Marx’s condemnation of the entire bourgeoisie as a class, simply by dint of owning private property that was stolen, Marx says, in the original Marxist sin of “primitive accumulation,” leads him and his followers to countenance the mass murder of the offending class in order to remove the taint of prior and ongoing transgression.
John Paul teaches that Jesus’ approach is entirely different. Jesus does not work according to our affiliations. He scandalized his contemporaries by cutting straight across class boundaries, dining with prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen, and housewives. He meets each man and woman in his or her heart, calling out to them individually so that they might make the freely willed choice to “repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Marx appeals to class consciousness, but Jesus speaks to the conscience—and the conscience is the most intimate and private part of who we are. We cannot be both Christians and Marxists.
An individual—the “first-born of all creation,” as John Paul calls him—“becom[es] incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, [and] unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man.” Our real nature is not as cogs in an identity-less collective, but as individuals in relationship with another individual, the Second Person of the Trinity. This is the bedrock teaching of Christianity, and hostility to this anthropology is the bedrock teaching of Marx.
Eagleton wants to meld Christianity and Marxism, but attempting to do so will require changing one or the other so fundamentally—forcing so “radical a sacrifice” of their essential teachings—that the project will inevitably fail. Whether ushered in by the proletariat, the peasantry, or the anawim, wherever Marxism takes root it will seek to choke out every competitor. Eagleton offers us a gentle revolution, a soft “transition” from Catholicism to Marxism, but this is as theoretically and theologically impossible as it is historically unprecedented. Any “radical sacrifice” on anything other than God’s terms will lead to mass bloodshed and human suffering, as it has whenever and wherever such a project has been tried before.