Herbert McCabe: The Class Struggle and Christian Love

For a limited time, we are republishing Herbert McCabe's seminal essay on class struggle and Christianity. It remains an exemplary artifact of Christian-Marxist dialogue, a dialogue which remains essential today.
Even the most sympathetic pronouncements by the Christian Churches about political liberation, even the friendliest approaches by Christians towards various kinds of Marxists have a way of ending up with the proviso that Christians can have nothing to do with the idea of an inevitable class struggle. Christians who willingly accept that we now need to dismantle capitalist structures of ownership and control, Christians who are perfectly happy with the prospect of a socialist society, still balk at the idea of the class struggle as the only possible means to this end.

Now I do not think that this is a contemptible position; I do not think that Christians who adopt it are wicked class enemies secretly in collusion with the bourgeois state, but I think they are wrong and I shall try to show why. If it is true, as I think, that the class struggle is the revolution — not just a means towards it, but the thing itself — and if it is true that the Christian gospel of love is incompatible with this, then quite evidently the Christian gospel is incompatible with revolutionary liberation: one of the few positions shared by the International Marxist Group, Mrs. Thatcher and Joseph Stalin.

I think this position has a good deal to be said for it, at least at first sight; it is supported by arguments that need to be considered. Christians who rush mindlessly into class confrontations because Jesus wants us to fight a lot of godless capitalists and their lackeys are no more intellectually respectable than Christians who rushed into the Vietnam war because Jesus wants us to fight a lot of godless Communists. Nevertheless, if we examine the arguments, they turn out to be mistaken, as I now hope to show.

First of all let us eliminate some fairly simple confusions. One of them arises out of the word ‘struggle’ itself and a lot of other words that get themselves used in this context: exhortations to ‘smash the bourgeois state’ or for ‘increased militancy’ are all violent uses of language so that argument about the class struggle gets mixed up with an argument about violence. People committed to the class struggle are thought to be people especially addicted to trying to solve political and economic problems by violence. Now this is a muddle. There is a Christian argument against the use of violence and there is another Christian argument about participating in the class struggle; both these arguments are, I think, mistaken but they are different arguments because the class struggle and political violence are by no means the same thing.

It is perfectly possible to believe passionately in the importance of the class struggle and to renounce all political violence. It would be perfectly possible for a Christian to hold that the gospel prevents him from ever killing anyone but positively encourages him to subvert and overthrow the ruling class. Further than that: a Christian or a non-Christian might well say that political violence is not only different from the class struggle but is actually opposed to it. People who provoke violent confrontations with the ruling class, he might argue, are, wittingly or not, objectively acting as agents of the ruling class. Political violence, he might say, is just romantic adventurism or plain bad temper and is invariably counter-revolutionary. Now I think this too is a very plausible position. You have only to see how the violence of the Provisionals in Northern Ireland has intensified sectarian tensions to realise that this kind of thing is the enemy of real working class unity and militancy. And then there is the general argument that violence is the specialty of the ruling class; they are better at it and better equipped for it; if you meet them on their own ground, in their own terms, playing the game by their rules, they are bound to win. For every idealist gunman you can recruit, they can pay and train a hundred unfortunate young men from the big unemployment pools of the North East or Clydeside. When it comes to the brute primitive business of who can kill most people, the rich are always going to win. General Patton’s remark that you do not win wars by dying for your country but by getting the other man to die for his country applies with equal force to the class war. As James Connolly put it long ago:

“One great source of the strength of the ruling class has ever been their willingness to kill in defence of their power and privileges. Let their power be once attacked either by foreign foes or by domestic revolutionaries, and at once we see the rulers prepared to kill and kill and kill. The readiness of the ruling class to order killing, the small value the ruling class has ever set upon human life is in marked contrast to the reluctance of all revolutionaries to shed blood.”

The wealthy and powerful are wealthy and powerful in part because they are better at killing; the one thing they cannot do is carry on forever the fiction that their interests coincide with the interests of most of the community. They cannot forever con people into believing that it is in their own interests and that of their families to work or to die for the profit of the ruling class. Any action that helps to expose this fiction, any action that serves to organise the working class — which is to say almost everybody in the community — in their own interests strikes a really dangerous blow at the power of our rulers, immensely more dangerous than any bullet or bomb. Through their newspapers, our rulers evince proper outrage at the murderous activities of urban terrorists, but on those rare occasions when the unions show some sign of mild militancy the tone becomes one of hysterical fear. It may of course be necessary, in order to expose the great fiction, in order to organise the workers, to do illegal things (for publicity if for nothing else) but this is a very different mater from a military confrontation with the state. A totally pacifist Christian could well advocate illegal action, obstruction and the rest of it, not because he imagines that such pinpricks will of themselves weaken the power of the police or the army, but because they are part of a genuine subversive plan to organise the power of the people.

“The wealthy and powerful are wealthy and powerful in part because they are better at killing; the one thing they cannot do is carry on forever the fiction that their interests coincide with the interests of most of the community. They cannot forever con people into believing that it is in their own interests and that of their families to work or to die for the profit of the ruling class.”

In any case what is illegal and what is legal is a relative and shifting thing. Any activity that begins to pose a genuine threat to the capitalist order will in the course of time be made illegal — think of the current move to ‘tighten the law’ on picketing. And of course now that, with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Britain has become a police state, it is no longer necessary even to accuse a person of an illegal act before taking him or her into custody. The Act has, naturally, nothing at all to do with the prevention of terrorism; of the thousands who have now been arrested and detained under it, the enormous majority had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism and could not be charged with so much as a parking offence — though one man they picked up and imprisoned was charged with ‘wasting police time.’ The Act exists to make it easier to harass and persecute people who show signs of being a nuisance to the capitalist order. I mention this merely to indicate the wide and inevitably increasing area of non-violent illegal actions (not to mention the perfectly legal actions for which you can now be detained) that a Christian pacifist might find necessary as part of the non-violent class struggle. There is no substance at all to the belief that such a pacifist must logically confine his actions to those that are still sanctioned by the law.

I have spoken at some length about this version of the Christian challenge to our society — that of the person who is actively committed the class struggle and perfectly prepared to do things that will land him or her in jail, but who is wholly opposed to violence — firstly because it is a fairly common one amongst Christians; and secondly because it needs to answer and usually fails to answer an objections from the points of view of the gospel; and thirdly because I think it is mistaken, though not at the moment very importantly mistaken.

Last things first: I think Christian pacifists are mistaken in ruling out violence in all circumstances, for the very conventional reason that in the end the ruling class will always protect its interests with gunfire, as we have seen it doing in Chile and throughout Latin America in recent years. In the end of the workers will need not only solidarity and class consciousness but guns as well; but in this country, and in the Western world as a whole, this moment has not yet arrived; the capitalist class has by no means yet dismantled the apparatus of democracy; a certain freedom of communication, certain civil rights, despite all harassment of militants, make the class struggle a good deal easier to organise here than in many countries. While this situation obtains, our job is peaceful and efficient organisation, education and propaganda. Any adventurist violent posturings, which will merely hasten the dismantling of these democratic freedoms, are simply counter-revolutionary. That is why Christian pacifists are not at the moment very importantly mistaken; for the moment violence is not on the revolutionary agenda in this country. Their pacifism may, indeed, cause such Christians mistakenly to deplore necessary violence in other parts of the world, but this too doesn’t matter much because the fighting men and women of Zimbabwe, Iran or Nicaragua can generally survive being deplored by rather distant Christians.

I think, then, that the pacifist is mistaken in supposing that violence is always incompatible with the Christian demand that we love our neighbor, and later I shall explain why I think this, but I also think that he is vulnerable from, so to speak, the other end. As I have said, he needs to answer a further objection from the point of view of the gospel: the objection that the class struggle itself, whether violent or not, and if non-violent, whether legal or not, and if not illegal, whether landing you in the hands of the Special Branch or not, is an un-Christian and deplorable thing.

In this matter I propose to come to the aid and comfort of the hypothetical Christian pacifist militant. I propose to try and show that participation in the class struggle is not only compatible with Christian love but is demanded by it; then I want to go on from there to my other point at which I shall try to show that there are circumstances in which even violence itself — by which I mean killing people — is not only compatible with Christian love but demanded by it; though these circumstances, as I have said, do not at present obtain in the Western capitalist world.

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.”

“I say to you: do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

“You have heard that it was said: ‘You shall love your neigbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and prayer for those that persecute you.”

“I say to you: Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the Council, whoever says ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

These are familiar but powerful passages from the Sermon on the Mount.

“Peter said to Jesus: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him: ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven times.’”

That’s again from Matthew. But of course the thing isn’t confined to Matthew. The command to love your neighbour as yourself is already in Galatians and in Mark. Luke as well has the passage about loving your enemies. John is slightly different; he speaks more of love than any other New Testament writer but I think it might be argued that for him this means primarily solidarity amongst the comrades of the Christian movement. He does not, at least directly, speak of loving all men, but he does speak of ‘the brother,’ as in 1 John 4:20: ‘He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.’

So all in all it cannot be denied that if the Christian gospel is about anything it is about people loving each other. It is not, as is sometimes thought, simply about this: on the contrary, it is first of all about God loving us, but the sign that we recognise this love for God for us, the sign of our faith, is that we love each other. And if we have any doubts about what the early Church thought that love implied, we should look at 1 Corinthians: ‘Love is patient and kind . . . it is not arrogant . . . Love does not insist on its own way, love endures all things . . .’.

Now it certainly looks as if you cannot preach the absolute necessity of love (which does not insist on its own interest, which endures all things) and at the same time preach that people should fight for their rights, should refuse to endure their working conditions. Can the struggle against the transnationals or the SAS be carried on meekly? If the peacemakers are blessed then it must always be better to avoid a strike or any kind of confrontation — and so on.

Clearsighted parsons and bishops right through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have for the most part surely understood this: the Church must be against social conflict, against the agitator, the revolutionary. ‘Hell is not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish the leaders of the Fenians’ as the celebrated bishop intoned. Equally clearsighted agitators and revolutionaries have been of the same opinion during the same period. The Church is inextricably bound up with the class enemy, is she not? She must and will support the status quo and the powers that be. There will no doubt be occasional quarrels between Church and capitalist state when their interests conflict, just as there will be occasional quarrels between capitalist states themselves, there will be anti-clerical persecutions just as there will be national wars, but basically the Church and the bourgeoisie are on the same side against the working class. The gospel of love can safely be preached to the bourgeoisie, for to them it will just mean philanthropy and soup for the deserving poor; it can profitably be preached to the workers for it will emasculate their struggle and induce them to bear their fate with Christian resignation.

All this was nice and simple, though even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were a fair number of people — a lot of them Methodists, but also Roman Catholics and High Anglicans and others — to point out that the gospel and the interests of the Church are not precisely synonymous. Nevertheless it was fairly simple. It is only in our present age that the facts of history have begun to be unkind to this simple view. The daily news from Latin America shows Christians as posing a far greater threat to business interests than Communist parties ever did. In Africa the challenge to colonialism and white racism does not come substantially from strict Marxist theorists but from good Catholics like Nyerere and Mugabe, and good Protestants like Kaunda and Nkomo — not by any means from all Christians, I need hardly say, but from a sufficiently substantial number of them to worry both the police and the old-fashioned theorists. Are all these just confused and contradictory — Castro when he speaks respectfully of the revolutionary role of the Church in Latin America, or the Christians who play an active part in Marxist movements — are they all hopelessly muddled, or do we have to make some important modifications to the theory? Let us look and see.

First of all, so that we shall not be altogether at cross purposes, a word about what the class struggle is. This will have to be a very simplified, even an over-simplified, word, but I want to be as brief as possible. The class struggle is not, in the first place, a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It has very little to do with what people on England call ‘class distinctions,’ meaning a peculiarly English kind of snobbery. It is not differences of wealth that cause class differences, but class differences that cause differences of wealth. The worker by his labor creates a certain amount of wealth, only part of which is returned to him in the form of wages, etc. The rest is appropriated by the employer, or capitalist, so called because his function is to accumulate capital in this way. The capitalist receives from a great many workers the extra wealth which they produce but do not need for their subsistence and minimal contentment, and bringing all this wealth together he is able to invest, to provide the conditions under which more work may be done — and so on.

“[T]he class war is intrinsic to capitalism. It is part of the dynamic of the capitalist process itself. It is not as though somebody said: ‘Let’s have a class struggle, let’s adjust the imbalance of wealth by organising the poor workers against the rich capitalists’. Nothing of the kind. The tension and struggle between worker and capitalist is an essential part of the process itself.

On this fundamental division between worker and employer the whole class system rests. The worker is whoever by productive work actually creates wealth. The employer is not simply anyone who makes overall decisions about what work shall be done and how; he is the one who takes the surplus wealth created by the worker and uses it (in his own interests of course) as capital. Capitalism is just the system in which capital is accumulated for investment, in their own interests, by a group of people who own the means of production and employ large numbers of other people who do not own the mean of production but produce both the wealth which they receive back in wages and the surplus wealth which is used for investment by the owners.

There is of course nothing wrong with the accumulation of capital. If all the wealth created by the worker were retained by him for consumption there would be no development of new techniques, no human progress in production, no creation of civilisation. It is possible to imagine, and I think there have actually existed, societies in which hardly any such progress has taken place because either there was very little surplus value created by the primitive work that was done — hardly more than was enough for the subsistence of the worker and his family — or else the surplus was simply consumed by the rich or used for military purposes without being put to productive use as capital. Such societies might be quite stable, they would contain rich and poor families (the rich being those strong enough to keep the others in subjection) but it would not strictly contain any classes.

Feudal, aristocratic, pre-capitialist society can be at least schematically represented in this way. The feudal landlord and his family, like a Mafia Godfather, is strong enough to keep his tenants, peasants and serfs in subjection and in return to protect them from arbitrary attack, robbery and disaster from outside. If you happen to think that it is in some way wrong or unjust that some people should be rich and have an easy life while others should be poor and have a hard life, then you will probably think such a society unjust. But as a matter of fact most people living in such societies do not seem, as far as we know, to have felt this way except when conditions for the poor become exceptionally bad. They just took it for granted that there would be the rich man in his castle and the poor man at the gate, and in a highly unstable world the rich man did provide minimal protection, law and order; he had the military power to subdue gangsters and causal predators.

When you felt resentful of the rich there was always the gospel to reassure you that he was probably corrupted by his wealth and due for eternal damnation; but there was nothing in the gospel (and there still is nothing in the gospel) to say that everyone has to have equal shares of wealth; there is plenty to tell you not to be preoccupied with such questions. Of course there was a great deal of injustice in such feudal society, arbitrary rapine and cruelty, the greed of the lord grabbing more than his customary dues from his subjects, and so on, and there was plenty in the gospel and the traditional teachings of the Church to condemn this, but nothing to suggest anything especially diabolical about the existence of the rich and poor.

Under such a feudal set-up the rich man is one who lives more luxuriously than others; a capitalist is quite a different matter. He is not, except maybe incidentally, a rich man living in luxury; he is a man whose function is to accumulate capital and invest it. He has no slaves or serfs to keep in subjection and correspondingly no job of protecting anyone. There are no customary dues, no recognised rights and obligations, no privileges, no servility. There emerges what Marx calls ‘civil society.’ Theoretically at any rate everyone is free, they are only bound by the contract they enter into. The worker has something to sell as dearly as possible, his labour, and the capitalist wants to buy it as cheaply as possible so as to have the maximum left over for capital investment. In this matter their interests fundamentally conflict.

In our schematic feudal set-up, you could say that each person has his or her niche in the system, even though some niches were much more comfortable than others. There was a roughly coherent static pattern of social relationships and it was felt to be an important task to preserve this stasis and to minimise conflict within it. Ideally at any rate, nobody has a niche under capitalism; capitalism is not a system, it is a process. It is a process of struggle, of competition — competition between rival capitalists which leads to greater efficiency but also leads to military struggle between the nation states created by capitalism; hence the national wars which by their consumption of armaments are in themselves an important element in the later capitalist economy. Competition even more fundamentally between the capitalist and the ultimate source of all economic value, the workers who under capitalism become a class distinguished by the fact that all they have to sell is their labour which they have to sell in the best market available.

For a variety of reasons and in a variety of aspects this capitalist process is unstable. I don’t want to go here into complex economic matters which are in any case in dispute amongst Marxists, concerning the inevitable falling rate of profit, the boom/depression cycle and the rest of it; for one thing it is a field in which I fear to tread, but I do want to note one fairly simple and essential instability in the whole process. Capitalism, through industrialisation, creates the conditions for the emergence of an organised working class — large numbers of people who have in common at least an opposing interest to that of the capitalist are brought together to work in the same buildings and live in the same streets. This means that the capitalist inevitably strengthens the hand of his opponents in the capitalist game itself. Capitalism, moreover, by its destruction of feudal privileges and the customary powers of the aristocracy, by bringing the bourgeoisie to power creates the democratic liberties, the relatively free media of communication, the principle of equality before the law and so on within which the organised working class can come to greater political power. When this power becomes too threatening there is a tendency for capitalism to regress from bourgeois democracy to feudal-style politics of the kind we call fascism, but this is itself a sign of the instability of the process. Fascism is, roughly speaking, the combination of capitalist economics with feudal politics.

The central point I wish to make throughout this is that the class war is intrinsic to capitalism. It is part of the dynamic of the capitalist process itself. It is not as though somebody said: ‘Let’s have a class struggle, let’s adjust the imbalance of wealth by organising the poor workers against the rich capitalists’. Nothing of the kind. The tension and struggle between worker and capitalist is an essential part of the process itself.

Here, however, we have to notice a certain asymmetry in the struggle within capitalism. The capitalist’s struggle is simply within the process. The opposite, worker’s struggle is more than that. It is actually destructive of the process itself. The capitalist method of accumulating capital by the private ownership of the means of production eventually creates the conditions in which it is itself out of date as well as bringing forth the new class which will operate the transition to a new system. The methods and techniques of production developed under capitalism, the interlocking complexities of the industrial process itself, not to mention the complexities of distribution and exchange, mean that control by the free play of the market simply will not work any more. The response to this under capitalism is of course the movement from individual entrepreneur to corporation, from corporation to transnational company and so on. But all this is really only building an appearance of modernity onto an out-of-date basis which still remains the basis of private, non-social ownership and the market economy. The obvious move is to eliminate the archaic irrelevancy of the market, and with it the archaic irrelevancy of the capitalist class, and to transfer the whole thing to the organised working class. The accumulation of capital and its investment will then not be at the mercy of the maximisation of profit by this or that corporation, but can be organised rationally (and therefore justly) in terms of what people need and want.

As capitalism seeks to adjust itself to the situation it has created, one of its moves is the phasing out, as a significant factor, of the nation state which was originally set up as the protector of local capitalist enterprises. The setting up of the EEC (and for that matter the American civil war which established the first modern common market) is just such a move against the nationalism of early capitalism. To seek to institute social ownership of the means of production while retaining the old nation state — to see ‘nationalisation’ as a genuine alternative to capitalism — would seem to be a blind alley; the result is merely, as in Russia, the replacement of the capitalist class by a bureaucracy. Nationalisation within capitalism, as in Britain, for example, is simply a way of providing at public expense the infrastructure required by national or international capital which cannot be provided at a profit — there is nothing more essentially socialist about a state-run coalmine than there is about a state-run army. It is only in the context of workers’ control that nationalisation is socialist.

“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.”

The struggle of the working class is not, therefore, 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.”

If the kind of account I have been giving is more or less right, and you don’t have to be much of a Marxist to see it as a fairly plausible view of things, then 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 people’s 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 find 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 stifling customs and traditions of feudalism and thus found ways to make products available more cheaply and more profitably.

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 first place the simple division into two classes won’t 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 difficulties 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: ‘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 difficult 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 find 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 conflict 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. The permanent capitalist state of war erupts every now and then into a major killing war, but its so-called peacetime is just war carried on by other means. The recent strategic limitation talks (SALTII) have produced an agreement whereby the US should deploy a capacity to inflict 600,000 Hiroshimas on the human race. But at the heart of all this violence is the class war.

It is of course not in the least surprising that those whose whole way of life demands the class war should be the ones to deny its importance or even its existence. For the propagandists of capital, the class war is something invented or instigated by revolutionaries and socialists; in fact it is merely uncovered by them. We are all by now thoroughly familiar with the ‘peace-keeping role’ of Russian tanks or American bombers or British paratroopers; all such major terrorists proclaim that they are simply maintaining or restoring a peace that has been wantonly shattered by wicked subversives. In exactly the same way the capitalist press and the BBC speak of strikes as disturbances of industrial peace, so that the end of a strike, whatever its outcome, is described as a return to normality and order. There is no reason to take any of these people seriously.

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 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.”

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 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.

It is useful to reflect from time to time on the fact that capitalism is, in part, the fruit of Christianity. It was the Christian movement, with its doctrine of the autonomy of the world and its attack on the gods, that made possible the rise of scientific rationalism. There is a direct connection between the doctrine of creation and the presuppositions of scientific explanation. It was the Christian movement that broke the power of the great feudal families, and so on. The Christian movement shattered itself as the Reformation by its involvement in the capitalist revolution. It is only now, with the end of the capitalist era, that those wounds are being healed — now that they are irrelevant. We must expect the involvement of Christians in the socialist revolution to be no less traumatic for the Churches.

There are, it seems to me, only two available attitudes in the face of the class war: you can either try to go back to a time before it started, you can wish that capitalism had never occurred (and you can imagine you are engaged in building a non-capitalist, non-antagonistic world), or else faced with the fact of the class war, you can try to win it. The first of these attitudes has too often been adopted by Christians faced with capitalism. They construct an imaginary ideal Christian social order in which class antagonisms will not exist because everybody will love everyone — whereas, of course, people will only in a practical sense love each other when class antagonisms have ceased. If, for example, you look for the papal social teaching from the time of Leo XIII until Vatican II or, to take a more parochial example, if you look at William Temple and the Christian Social Movement, you will find just such a prescription for an ideal consensus society, a utopian form of socialism or a utopian form of distributism, to which there are two serious objections.

The first is that there is no attempt to show how such a society might be brought about in the present stage of history, and the second is that by diverting attention from the realities of the class war such dreaming plays into the hands of one of the protagonists of that war — the one that is on the side of war. It is as with the Peace Movement in Northern Ireland which began so splendidly as a cry of outrage against sectarian murder but which, precisely because it simply dreamt of peace without offering a programe to achieve it, ended up simply as an instrument of the British propaganda. The Peace Women had no more conscious desire to aid and abet British imperialism than Archbishop Temple had to aid and abet the CBI, yet he ended up a couple of years ago being republished with a preface by Edward Heath. That kind of Christian utopianism that finds its home so often in the Liberal or Labour Party is in fact unwittingly, but objectively, reactionary. The only way to end the class war is to win it.

“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.”

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 fight? There are various pieces of advice that might be given, but I would like here to reiterate some traditional ones. In the first 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 conflict with parents does not make a good and reliable comrade. Whatever happened to all those ‘revolutionary’ students of 1968? What the revolution needs are 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 don’t 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, first 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 flags 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 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, find 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.

To imagine that we will never come across people who set their own private interests above those of the community and seek them at the community’s expense, is not only to fly in the face of the evidence, it is also to deny the possibility of sin. It is to deny a great deal about yourself.

“In our fallen world justice sometimes demands violence… my only quarrel is with the way that justice has so often turned out to coincide with the interests of the rich.”

All this has been well understood in the mainstream Christian tradition; it has long been recognised that while injustice is intrinsically wrong (so that it makes no sense to claim that the reason why you are committing an injustice — killing, let us say, an innocent person — is in order to achieve justice), violence, though an evil and never a perspicuous manifestation of love, is not intrinsically wrong; it does not make the same kind of nonsense to say that you are doing violence in order to achieve justice. As I see it, the old theology of the just war is in essence perfectly sound; this was an attempt to lay down guidelines for deciding when violence is just and when it is unjust. The theology was perfectly sensible and rational but what we have now come to see is that the only just war is the class war, the struggle of the working class against their exploiters. No war is just except in so far as it is part of this struggle.

As I have already said, it seems to me that violence can have very little part in the class struggle as such, but it does seem reasonable to suppose that the ruling class will continually defend its position by violence and it is therefore difficult to see how it could be overthrown in the end without some use of violence. It is not a question of vindictive violence against individuals seen as personally wicked; the revolutionary, who will reject all conspiracy theories of society, is the last person to blame the corrupt social order on the misdeeds of individuals; there is no place for such infantile hatred in the revolution. However difficult it may be to see this, the revolution is for the sake of the exploiter as well as the exploited. Nevertheless it is useless to pretend that there will be no killing of those who defend their injustice by violence. It is even more difficult to see how the early phases of socialism could be protected from reactionary subversion without some force of coercion. The example of Chile stands as an appalling warning of the ruthlessness of capitalism when it sees itself really threatened. I cannot see how such necessary violence and coercion are in any way incompatible with Christian love. Of course they are not perspicuous examples of love, and of course they would have no place in a truly liberated society, and of course no place in the Kingdom; but we have not yet reached this point. It is for this reason that we cannot imagine Jesus taking part in such violence; he was wholly and entirely a perspicuous example of what love means; he was and is the presence of the Kingdom itself; we, however, are only on the road towards it.

But not just on the road towards it. Christians believe that the Kingdom is not just in the future; because of Christ’s passion and resurrection it is also in a mysterious way present. The presence of the future is what we call grace. This means that a Christian cannot fully accept Chairman Mao’s saying that there is, as yet, no brotherhood of man, that is must wait until the establishment of communism. From one point of view this is correct, and like Mao the Christian would want to reject the superficial liberal view of the unity of men regardless of creed or class; indeed the brotherhood of man belongs to the future, the real unity of the human race is a unity in grace, in Christ; but the future itself is not just in the future. Christ is not only the Omega point, He also lives in us even now.

This means that Christians, in a sense, look at the present from the perspective of the future. This is what makes genuine forgiveness possible. Through grace, through the life of Christ in him, the Christian is able, in an odd way, to adopt the perspective of God, who loves both the just and unjust. This does not make the unjust any less unjust; this does not in any way diminish the need for the struggle, the need for smashing the power of the exploiter and oppressor, but it does, in the end, make hatred impossible. There is a paradox, but no contradiction, in being able by the grace of God to love the person you must fight; there is a paradox, but no contradiction, in having an enemy who must be destroyed and yet who is not in any ultimate sense the enemy but one for whom Christ also dies; there is a paradox, but no contradiction, in fact, in loving your enemies. And the paradox lies in God who is not just the future, not just the transcendent towards which we strive, but is Emmanuel, God with us, the future which is already with us, drawing us to Himself.

© Herbert McCabe, 2012, God Matters, Continuum Publishing, used by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 


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