There was a time with the writings of “Karl and Fred” (Marx and Engels) were prominent on my reading list. During my growing up years, their followers controlled a third of the world’s population and most of its nuclear weapons. During my career in the family business I spent a great deal of time in countries which were (in theory at least) built on their idea, or coming off same (you can see this here and here and here.
So this piece from Philip Jenkins about Engels, Lucian and the danger of frauds and charlatans in movements caught my attention. The Roman satirist Lucian told the tale of one Peregrinus, who had conned (among others) a Christian church, and in doing so gave us an outside view of Roman Empire Christianity in its early years.
Engels, whose relationship with Christianity was more complicated than his professed atheism would admit, actually had a more sympathetic view of the Christian church than Lucian had. Why? Because he had seen the same types of con pulled on the left-wing movements of nineteenth century Europe. He and Marx laboured to keep the “main thing” (i.e., economics and the class struggle) the main thing, but even they fought an uphill battle. As he ruefully noted:
Today such extreme cases, at least in the large centers, have become impossible; but in remote districts where the movement has won new ground a small Peregrinus of this kind can still count on a temporary limited success. And just as all those who have nothing to look forward to from the official world or have come to the end of their tether with it — opponents of inoculation, supporters of abstemiousness, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, nature-healers, free-community preachers whose communities have fallen to pieces, authors of new theories on the origin of the universe, unsuccessful or unfortunate inventors, victims of real or imaginary injustice who are termed “good-for-nothing pettifoggers” by all bureaucracy, honest fools and dishonest swindlers — all throng to the working-class parties in all countries — so it was with the first Christians.
Most all the movements Engels decried in his stay are still, in one form or another, with us, and many with honoured place in the American Left. I used the “Obama socialism” poster at the start for a little fun, but the truth is that the communists, for all of their cruelty, built great industrial powers, even though their own theory in the end ran them down. Our left can only run down without building up, and they can’t even fix income inequality while they’re at it.
Comparing Obama and the American Left to communism is unfair. To the communists.