Apropos of this little discussion we’ve been having recently about matters religious, it is of course true that Marxist politics have some of the qualities of religion. There are gurus and hagiographies, theology (aka diamat) and demonology, complicated formulae that have grown up over the generations only to be handed down to bemused youths, and of course schisms. Indeed, at a conference not long ago I was delighted to hear a member of Socialist Appeal expound the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. It went like this: In the beginning there were Marx and Engels, who were brilliant. Then there were Lenin and Trotsky, who were brilliant. Then there was Ted Grant, who was brilliant. And now, carrying the torch of brilliance into the new millennium, were Hugo Chávez and Alan Woods.
Now, you may read this and think, “Blimey, that Alan Woods doesn’t go in much for false modesty, does he?” And you would be right, but you would have to follow that up by acknowledging that it’s a much broader phenomenon than just that one tendency. And you may also say that, while the official Communists of old were a bit like the Catholics, the Trots bear a remarkable likeness to the divers array of Calvinist sects. (Where the symmetry falls down here is that I can’t think off the top of my head of a denominational analogue for the Maoists.) And, by the way, when I read the polemics between the CWI and the Scottish ISM during their parting of the ways, the most serious difference I could think of was that the CWI still believed in the necessity of a priesthood, while the ISM were happy enough to settle for charismatic lay preachers – although that bit them in the arse in the end.
Anyway, what I wanted to come back to was this whole issue of church and state. Now, as already stated, my preference is for the formula laid down in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This has been muddied a good deal by the sort of strident nudniks who like to take cases to the Supreme Court trying to get “In God We Trust” removed from dollar bills, but the meaning is relatively straightforward. In revisiting Jesus’ injunction to render God and Caesar their respective due, it means that there is no established religion, nor does the state interfere in the religious sphere.
This, it seems to me, is a better reference point than the French concept of laïcité, rooted as it is in the Jacobins’ fondness for having the state dictate religious matters. It also has the edge over the distinction (though not radical separation) between church and state in Catholic political theology, sketched out by Augustine and elaborated by Aquinas, which consistently defends the church against state interference, but does in certain circumstances favour the existence of an established church, which is why de Valera’s 1937 constitution failed to win papal approval. (Orthodox political theology is different in origin, deriving from the history of the Byzantine Empire, but has ended up in a not dissimilar place.) You may think that the interference of the state in the church is something that belongs in the bygone era of the Tudors, as recounted in the classic Carry On Henry, or you might think of its residue in the English body politic as a quaint irrelevance, given that half the people in the Church of England don’t even believe in God. But it’s a more widespread issue than you’d think.
Take China. In mainland China, the Catholic Church as such isn’t allowed to operate legally. In its place, you have something called the Patriotic Catholic Association, which agrees with all the policies of the Chinese government. Moreover, its bishops are appointed by the Communist Party, in the exact same way that the Communist Party decides which Tibetan peasant child is going to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The main difference is that the Chinese Catholics, lacking the sexy exoticism of the Tibetan Buddhists or their rock ‘n’ roll leader, have so far avoided the dubious pleasure of having their cause taken up by Richard Gere or Sharon Stone. As a result, it’s usually only readers of the Tablet who get to hear about their plight.
But surely that’s China, and you wouldn’t get something like that in a modern European democracy? Well, maybe Montenegro isn’t exactly your model European state, but Milo Djukanović’s pirate republic has been rather interesting on the ecclesiastical front. This results from Milo’s campaign, since he broke from his mentor Slobodan Milošević and sought out US-EU sponsorship, to prove that Montenegro is a totally distinct nation and nothing to do with Serbia, honest guv. The campaign, whose broad outlines will be familiar to students of JV Stalin’s nationalities policy in the 1920s, has ranged from the adoption of a swanky new flag to the promotion of pseudo-historical theories about a mediaeval kingdom of “Red Croatia”, to importing linguists from Zagreb (where else?) with the aim of codifying local dialectalisms into a separate Montenegrin language – a sort of Balkan equivalent of Ulster Scots. But one of the big obstacles in his way has been the total loyalty of the local Orthodox church, both clergy and active laity, under the leadership of the formidable Metropolitan Amfilohije, to the Serbian patriarchate.
On the other hand, there were a few handy precedents in the region. During the Second World War, the Nazi-Franciscan regime in Croatia created a “Croatian Orthodox Church”, with a defrocked Russian priest at its head, to try and create a sort of patriotic religious outlet for those of the troublesome Serb minority who resisted conversion to Catholicism, thus rebranding them as “Croats of Orthodox faith”. That the original initiative comprehensively failed to take off did not deter some of the more enthusiastic Croat nationalists of the 1990s from thinking the idea might be worth reviving. A much more respectable precedent is that of the Macedonian church, whose declaration of autocephaly in 1967 (after a little arm-twisting from the Yugoslav government) may have been of dubious canonicity but was at least proclaimed by the legitimate bishops of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, and enjoyed broad popular support. And so, in the context of Djukanović’s Kulturkampf, it has been no surprise to see the emergence in recent years of a “Montenegrin Orthodox Church”, with a defrocked priest pressed into service as “Metropolitan” (not a single legal clergyman having been willing to defect), and a congregation composed, to the extent it exists at all, of communists, Muslims and Albanians. Nonetheless, the spurious organisation does seem to have plenty of money, and political and police protection for its various provocations. Note that all this is taking place, not in an Anthony Hope novel, but in a contemporary European country that’s being considered for EU accession.
Let’s return to the British context, and we can see that New Labour retains a positively Tudor liking for sticking its oar into matters spiritual. Mr Tony Blair’s declarations about how the Pope has to reform and modernise (evidently he’s never heard of the Catholic Modernists) is just the tip of the iceberg. One may also mention the Blair government, in correctly lifting legal barriers against gay adoption, further legislating to prevent Catholic adoption agencies from adhering to Catholic moral teaching – with the fulsome support of the Grauniad liberals, who are quite happy to use one (“progressive”) minority to bash another (“reactionary”) minority. And this, mind you, from a government that has handed over hundreds of state schools to faith groups – but then, that’s a popular move with those middle-class parents who are prepared to fake religious devotion in order to get little Jimmy into a good school. One could write a whole book on the confusion, dissimulation and hypocrisy involved. And the latest instalment is Hazel Blears touting around her ideas about how the Muslims should run their religious institutions – demanding, for instance, that imams should preach Friday sermons extolling the glories of British democracy. You don’t have to be a mad mullah, or any kind of Muslim, to find this sort of thing outrageous.
Well, Mr Tony parading his religiosity, when any real Christian would have some concept of acknowledging his sins, is one thing. Another thing entirely is this compulsion that militant secularists seem to have – not content with a separation of church and state, an awful lot of them seem driven to seek the church’s subordination to the state. And there’s a great deal of this on the left, amongst people who seem to think that the Roundheads, the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks represent some kind of best practice in terms of dealing with the religious. When I say there are a lot of puritans on the left, that’s not just a comment on sexual mores – there are not a few Puritans in the historical sense, people who would ban Christmas if they thought they could get away with it.
I think it’s about time the militant secularists learned to take a more relaxed view of things. Like I say, the secular programme, in the narrow sense of a separation of church and state, is something I have no problem with. What makes me a little nervous is the (dare one say religious?) zealotry some secularists have. It’s as if the very notion that people in this world hold differing beliefs from them drives them haywire – it’s not enough for them to simply be atheists, they can’t rest until any trace of religious influence is expunged from the earth. The results can be simply annoying, as when Professor Dawkins or Dude Hitchens indulge in rhetoric based on the premise that anyone who isn’t an atheist is irredeemably stupid. Or, in some cases, they would be worrying if these folks were on the verge of taking power. There are few enough people left, one hopes, who subscribe to the idea of the one-party state. Perhaps the conceit of the “atheist state”, with accompanying implications for those who don’t subscribe to atheism, should also be consigned to the circular file. You don’t need to be a master of dialectics to know that an exaggerated rationalism can easily turn into irrational fanaticism.
And you don’t even want to get me started on Decent rationalism. Then again…