04 November 2016

The thin red line

We Americans should not be averse to considering socialism in far more depth than we do, rather than simply using it as a curse word or a dismissal. Socialism is a long, rich and diverse history of economic thought. It encompasses movements which have been heavily nationalistic, alongside those which have been every bit as stolidly internationalist. Socialists engage in whimsical flights of utopian fantasy, and they embrace the reality of the downtrodden in all its grit – sometimes even within the same strand of thought. Socialists hearken back to ‘when Adam dalf and Eve span’, and they look toward an apocalyptic future wherein the proletariat finally seize the means of production and herald in a classless society. Socialists focus on the local community; they also advocate for a single, centralised government over the whole world. Socialists embrace parliamentary democracy and they produce some of the most acerb critiques of it. (Likewise with totalitarian, personality-cult dictatorships.) Socialists embrace and reject violence as a means of social change.

Each of these debates has merit. Some, though, I would argue, are merely surface-level distinctions, while others carry far greater import. It’s generally assumed among those of us in the West that ‘democratic’ socialism, or ‘social democracy’ (two different things in themselves, by the way) are preferable to that old hideous Soviet beast, which trampled down freedom under a brutalist iron-mailed fist of centralist dictatorship. It’s still common in American liberal and radical circles, for example, to hear discussions about whether reform is tactically preferable to revolution (though how that revolution would occur is too often a question beyond the scope of these radicals). I would argue, however, that these distinctions do not get to the heart of what distinguishes a healthy socialism from an unhealthy one.

We have seen, in recent decades, a drift of the social-democratic and democratic-socialist parties of Europe toward the bland, banal centre. This is a drift we have seen in the Nordic countries as the social-democratic parties there have quietly trimmed and privatised public services; and also in the British Labour party under Blair as they embraced both privatisation and the agenda of American-led imperialist warfare for corporate gain. This is a drift which fudges the distinctions between public and private (though always in the service of well-connected private interests) and seeks to calculate everything from the commanding heights; the only functional difference, it often seems, between the average capitalist politician and the average modern Western European socialist, is how much of a bone they are willing to throw to the plebes to keep them sedentary and submissive.

In general, the reaction against this drift has been driven by the elements from the historically-defiant countryside, which even though they are by no means wholly right-wing have nevertheless been easily glossed by defenders of the status quo as ‘populist’ or ‘nationalist’. But the plain-spoken agrarian tendency to decry such violent conflicts has been expressed with archetypal bluntness (several times) by Belarus’s left-wing populist leader Aliaksandr Lukašenka. Lukašenka, far from being a typical Marxist (in spite of the strong state sector, strong presidential power and atmosphere of Soviet reverence in Belarus), pursues policies much more recognisably in line with the protectionist, agrarian programmes of Czechoslovakia’s Švehla and Bulgaria’s Stamboliyski than with his Soviet predecessors – but that is a post, I think, for another time. Even so, the distinction between the relatively-complacent urban social-democrats and the arguably more-radical rural agrarian socialists is a meaningful and important one: much more so than the democratic-undemocratic distinction.

But: the most high-profile critics of the war agenda have been religious leaders. These are leaders within the Roman Catholic Church (with both the sainted John Paul II and Benedict XVI having spoken out against the Iraq War), the Anglican Communion (with Robert Runcie and Rowan Williams having spoken out against it) and of course the Orthodox Church (with many major sees in Eastern Europe and America speaking out against the Iraq War, but in particular Patriarch Alexy II and the then-Metropolitan, now-Patriarch Kirill). In practically each and every instance, these same religious leaders have also spoken out against the excesses of capitalism and the encroachment of high finance and its subservient technocracy on the livelihoods of the common people. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, spoke highly of democratic socialist parties in Europe; Patriarch Kirill has gone a step further and advocated for an economy wherein the physical, real value of labour (rather than the abstracted and – in his words – ‘fraudulent’ value of capital-based checkbook credit) is central.

This reaction against imperialism and against the financial turn of the major Western economies from major religious leaders suggests strongly to me that the distinction between the religious socialists (with values firmly moored in the precedents set by their respective faiths) and those secular socialists who are more amenable to triangulation, militarism and the compromise of truth for political power, is also a highly important one for our time. When certain anti-war socialists are being subjected to wild McCarthyist speculation for speaking up against American involvement in Syria or the Ukraine, it is all the more important to listen to these alternative voices.


  1. Yet what bothers me, and maybe you can speak to it, are the far deeper connections in forms of global imperialism.

    I think of the Vatican's long and sorted relationship with the American imperium. There is the Vatican's functioning within the US' Operation Gladio for the election of mild, and pro-US, social democratic party in Italy (and surely elsewhere within the world where Rome has a say). So a throw away like "the Iraq War is wrong" when, clearly, American Catholics care less what the Pope says is hardly saying much. It's terribly ambiguous. Even as Francis lectures the Congress on Environmentalism, he's connected loosely in American diplomatic efforts to unhinge Armenia from Russia.

    Which leads me Kirill's curious relationship with Putin. I have no love or sympathy for the US' imperial efforts and Russia has every right to respond to meddling and interference (namely in Ukraine and Syria). Quite frankly, if Russia somehow, magically, seemed to interfere in American elections, it would be a just dessert for the dozens of nations that the US has systematically manipulated for national and corporate interests. But Putin is still a thug, though if one is a Russophile, perhaps a necessary one. And Kirill's relation is disturbing. How is the Orthodox Patriarchate not a shill for Russian geo-politics (or BRICS more broadly)? How is it not Orwell's Moses in Animal Farm? The Pan-Orthodox's council's collapse must be in part due to the political interests opposed between Moscow and Constantinople (who has strange connections).

    All in all, it makes me quite sad. I love Orthodoxy, but high-level corruption (plus, wide levels of lay ignorance) makes me sad. But such is the tale of Church and Empire, from Constantine onward, I suppose.


    PS. I'm not aware of English Anglican involvement in this or that, but they fall under the same hammer if it's the case.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Cal!

    Here's the thing, though. On economic issues, the religious leaders of Europe are well to the left of the laity there, let alone those over here. Part of the reason for this is the heightened awareness of the Apostolic deposit and the legacy of Patristic thought on topics such as usury.

    And you might think that the Iraq War stand these folks made was a 'throw-away' and much ado about nothing, but I certainly don't think so. The war in Iraq was a war first and foremost on truth, and these religious leaders took a stand on what was true even though it endangered their relationship with the United States.

    As for the Church-State relationship, I've been on both sides of that fence - first as a Mennonite and a Quaker, then as an Anglican and an Orthodox Christian. The reasoning in favour of Church involvement with the State, provided that it takes place on a respectful, harmonious and mutually-understanding basis, is much stronger than the reasoning in favour of separation. The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, has not supported the Russian state's involvement in Crimea or even the indirect involvement in the Donetsk Basin, except to pray for an end to hostilities and a quick reconciliation. No doubt you will say this is not enough. But it's enough to throw doubt on the sadly-too-common assertion that the Russian Orthodox clergy are simply the geopolitical puppets of the Russian government.


    1. Thanks for your comment. I want to first say that my comment was more a lament and a request for clarification. If my tone sounded critical or attack-oriented, it didn't intend to be.

      As regards the Vatican: the hierarchy has been all sorts of things. Its support for Christian Democrat parties, after the Cold War, has to do with US meddling in European politics. Operation Gladio was a CIA Op that boosted a center-left party elected in Italy, taking the wind out of the growing Communist party and getting a pro-US, thoroughly bought off, government. It worked. Other operations existed thoroughout Europe and the Vatican had a hand to play.

      This is why the Iraq War was, in part, a kind of throw away. By the time JPII said anything, it was already a done deal. American Roman Catholics were, by majority, already sublimated. This is apart of the sordid game Rome plays, a pawn of US European affairs, but one that is relatively unstable. I don't think the statement threatened anything with the US. The hierarchy is still mostly Cold Warriors, though that generation is fading.

      The Vatican is still very much a political creature, even if the Romagna is gone. It must function according to perceived moral authority and its bank-accounts, which is invested in God knows what. It grieves me to no end that this is so.

      I honestly don't know enough about Kirill's relationship with Putin, but have heard enough that makes me concerned. Same with the Archbishop of Constantinople. It's one thing to say that the Church can work with a particular state, but we can't close our eyes to the viciousness and ugliness of what might be going on underneath. It's a slippery game. How often have churches become the Harlot of Babylon, drinking the blood of saints and the downtrodden of the Earth? It's truly disturbing.

      I pray that the Russian church is not a political creature of the Russian-led BRICS realignment or the great geopolitical game.