If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
So wrote the poet Claude McKay during the so-called red summer of 1919, when gangs of white supremacists attacked African Americans in scores of cities across the States. The disturbances erupted in an America reeling from the combined effects of the Great War, the Spanish Flu Pandemic and labour unrest. Yet it was also an America in which African Americans were increasingly unlikely to accept their oppression meekly. Some fought back against their tormentors, sparking press paranoia about outside agitators and devious foreign socialist manipulation.
McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889 and moved to America as a young man; as a writer and poet, he was a leading light in the artistic and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance and became emblematic of the spirit of assertiveness in 20th century Black America. He moved in Communist circles and visited the young Soviet Union where he met with leading Bolsheviks like Bukharin and Zinoviev.
Some years later McKay would convert to Catholicism, a move some have seen as counterposed to his youthful revolutionary activities. Yet this would be too simplistic a reading of it. The influence of the Catholic anarchist Dorothy Day, with whom he maintained a lively correspondence, was undoubtedly a significant one on his spiritual odyssey.
Day was also a convert who was grounded in revolutionary socialist politics. She would go onto found the Catholic Worker movement and boldly declared her manifesto to be the Sermon on the Mount.
This is not to deny that there was a conflict between Catholicism and the more revolutionary strains of socialism. The 1949 Papal Decree against Communism, for instance, may have helped to prompt the noted American Trotskyist Grace Carlson – who had once stood for election to the vice presidency on a Socialist Workers Party ticket – to leave her party and return to the religion of her upbringing.
But the relationship between the left and the Church was not simply one of antagonism. As McKay put it to Max Eastman, “There is a formidable left wing within the Catholic Church” which “can accommodate all, even you.”
Perhaps in a world saturated with conformism such complexity would prove unnerving. How would weedy social justice warriors react to Karl Marx’s forthright denunciation of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population as “a libel on the human race”, or the Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky’s lauding of Thomas More as a great figure who loomed on the threshold of socialism? And what would tweedy Brideshead devotees make of Pius XII’s drive to desegregate Southern parishes and his pleading for the lives of the Stalinist agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?
Back in Blighty, the largely Irish Catholic working class were the bedrock of the unions and delivered loyal votes to the Labour Party for many decades. The story of the Liverpudlian Mahon brothers, Peter and Simon, both Labour MPs, is the story of Catholic Labour’s rise and fall. They were elected during the heady days of the post-war boom but by the late 1960s found that a good deal of their parliamentary time was being taken up in attempting to filibuster abortion legislation. Peter Mahon would eventually be expelled from the party for standing against it in an election.
The Mahon brothers were long seen as the last redoubts of a vanished culture and indeed perhaps they were, but the vanishing actor was not the Catholic Church but the serious left, whether in the form of a mass membership Labour Party or in a layer of intellectual visionaries. It is noticeable that the vast chunks of red wall which crumbled away from Labour in the December 2019 election were in once Catholic Labour strongholds.
With the exception of the New York Times’s Elizabeth Bruenig and a few Twitter accounts, the radical Catholic left is similarly a thing of the past, swamped by the silliness which engulfed the Western Church in the aftermath of Vatican II. The coterie of crypto-libertinist privileged insiders that passes itself off as a contemporary Catholic left can most kindly be described as a feeble imitation of the real thing: neither Catholic, nor left in any meaningful sense of the word.
This isn’t to say that an authentic Catholic left can’t be revived. Claude McKay’s words acquire a peculiar relevance in this age of taking the knee. In his poem “Truth”, McKay wondered:
Lord, shall I find it in Thy Holy Church
Or must I give it up as something dead,
Forever lost, no matter where I search,
Like dinosaurs within their ancient bed?
I found it not in years of Unbelief
In science stirring life like budding trees,
In Revolution like a dazzling thief
Oh, shall I find it on my bended knees?
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