In the most recent on-line edition of Catholic World Report Carl Olson has written an article about the late Cardinal Jean Danielou (1905-74) in relation to the Second Vatican Council. According to Olson, Danielou’s father (described in Wikipedia as an “anticlerical politician”) was a Communist. Olson writes that his son, however, “was not taken in by the starry-eyed optimism of the early Sixties; on the contrary, he saw clearly that a humanism divorced from faith in Jesus Christ ends in ruin and despair”. Olson quotes from Danielou’s book The Scandal of Truth (1962) in which the latter writes: “While man may be destined for happiness, he has been injured by sin and can be healed only by the Cross”.
In his introduction to this book, Danielou made a pointed and prescient address: “Above all, I want to say to young Christians that they should not allow themselves to be overawed by the false vestiges of modern-day doctrines, whose murkiness masks the uprightness of eternal truth. The shocking bankruptcy of Marxist optimism and of the philosophies of despair as well has nothing about it that should impress them.”
Olson thinks that remark as appropriate today as when it was written 50 years ago; in his article he adds, “This, of course, was written before ‘Marxist optimism’ in various forms set the Western skies aflame and sent shockwaves through campuses and governments in the late sixties.” One might add that it was also written before the same “Marxist optimism” dominating the East European countries began to crumble with increasing speed at the end of the 1980s, revealing to the West the “ruin and despair” behind the Iron Curtain, created by Stalin at the end of the Second World War.
I know there is no answer to this question – but it makes me ponder the difference between Cardinal Danielou, who saw the flaws in his own father’s political position and rejected it wholesale, and the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died last month. How could the first discern the destructive tendencies of Marxist thinking and the second remain wedded to it all his long life, despite the damning evidence of history? According to the Telegraph obituary of Hobsbawm of 1 October, he was “long a loyal member of the Communist Party [who] wielded enormous influence during the 1960s and 1970s when his ideas helped to provide the intellectual underpinning of Left-wing revolutionary activism in the West”. The obituary continues: “There was no getting round the fact that he persisted in defending the record of totalitarian Communism long after it ceased to be fashionable or indeed defendable.”
It seems that Hobsbawm refused to surrender his Party card after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and it was “only a little while before the Party itself dissolved in 1991 that he let his membership lapse.” Incredibly, as the obituary informs us, in 1994 he wrote that “the achievements of… the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent dictatorship of Stalin had been positive and wrote of the “far from unimpressive records” of dictators like Honecker and Ceaucescu.”
But perhaps the most notorious aspect of Hobsbawm’s partiality for Stalinism is revealed in his reply to the television interviewer who asked him whether, for such an accomplishment to take place, “the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” “Yes” replied Hobsbawm. That says everything. To be prepared to consign 20 million men, women and children to oblivion in the interests of “state progress” is indeed a philosophy of despair. One might start with starry eyes – though I can’t think this phrase would ever have accurately described Stalin – but it always ends with the Gulag, the Lubyanka Prison and the KGB. Danielou, who turned away from his father’s political ideology and towards the person of Christ, towards self-sacrifice rather than the sacrifice of others, chose the better path.