Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Merton and Marx: The Power of Ideas

I matriculated at Amherst College, where as a freshman in the fall of 1969 I took an intro sociology course surveying the likes of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx (left). After a year off and a transfer, I graduated from Brandeis University, at a time when the voices of neo-Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse and Communist activist Angela Davis, Brandeis ’65, still echoed on campus. The influence of Karl Marx at American colleges of that era, 40 years ago, is astonishing to me now. More astonishing is that I accepted this influence, in the sense that I believed Marx must be someone I should know, a great thinker, a resident of the Pantheon. I was neither a Catholic nor an Evangelical at the time, just a lapsed Episcopalian, which is to say a loose-thinking liberal.

I don’t feel so abashed by my youthful enthusiasm for radical politics when I realize that Thomas Merton took a fleeting interest in Marx and Communism in his youth—as did another of my Catholic heroes, Dorothy Day. In fact, Day’s interest was more than fleeting.

(This post continues my oddball series of “meetings” between the saints featured in My Life with the Saints by Fr. James Martin and the Intellectuals featured in the book of the same name by Paul Johnson. Lining up the tables of contents of the two books side by side creates a random but provocative set of matches. Merton and Marx are the third on each list.)

In his memoir The Seven-Storey Mountain, Merton wrote of his college years in the 1930s:

I had begun to get the idea that I was a Communist, although I wasn’t quite sure what Communism was. There are a lot of people like that. They do no little harm by virtue of their sheer, stupid inertia, lost in between all camps, in the no-man’s land of their own confusion. They are fair game for anybody. They can be turned into fascists just as quickly as they can be pulled into line with those who are really Reds. 

A better description of my own adolescent confusion could not be written. Merton (left) went on to confess:

My bookshelf was full of a wide variety of strange bright-colored novels and pamphlets, all of which were so inflammatory that there would never be any special need for the Church to put them on the Index, for they would all be damned ipso jure—most of them by the natural law itself. I will not name the ones I remember, because some fool might immediately go and read them all: but I might mention that one of the pamphlets was Marx’s Communist Manifesto—not because I was seriously exercised about the injustices done to the working class, which were and are very real, but were too serious for my empty-headed vanity—but simply because I thought it fitted in nicely with the décor in which I now moved in all my imaginings. 

While Merton made light of his flirtation with leftist thinking, he clearly saw the dangers: “No little harm” can be done through such “sheer, stupid inertia, lost in between all camps.” What Merton describes here is a person who refuses to “judge” his experience, in the sense that Fr. Luigi Giussani uses the term in The Religious Sense. Not just as a college student, but through most of my life I have been such a person, more often than not, much more often.

As Merton acknowledges, ideas, even so lightly, frivolously held (because they “fitted in nicely with the décor”) have extraordinary power. You have only to think of the results caused or at least encouraged by two books: The Seven-Story Mountain and The Communist Manifesto. 

Published in 1948, Merton’s memoir led to a spate of vocations to monastic life in the fifteen years before Vatican II. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of men influenced by Thomas Merton elected to give their lives to God in the silence of the cloister.

Written exactly 100 years earlier, in the heat of the European revolutions of 1848, The Communist Manifesto influenced the lives of neither hundreds nor thousands but tens of millions. Think Russian Revolution. Think Gulag. Think the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China.

I am particularly struck by this comparison when I think of a third man whose ideas influenced many. Of course, one thinks of Jesus Christ, but I think also of St. Dominic (left). Since my return from the Dominican House of Studies ten days ago, I have been reading about St. Dominic, who died in 1221 and left behind not one single book. In fact, only three documents, two of them routine, even bear his writing or signature. Yet the fertility of his thought, his ideas, his preaching is proven every day in the lives and works of Dominican friars worldwide.

Marxism is all but a dead issue today, and regrettably the monastic vocations boom triggered by Merton turned to bust after Vatican II. But the “silent” unpublished teaching of St. Dominic continues to inspire the world.

(The first two posts in this series compare (1) Joan of Arc with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and (2) Thérèse of Lisieux with Percy Bysshe Shelley.)

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