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Are there any Communist philanthropists out there?

Two rich men demonstrate the importance of sharing wealth

By on Thursday, 3 July 2014

Jack MacDonald left millions to the Salvation Army (PA)

Jack MacDonald left millions to the Salvation Army (PA)

I happened to be awake at 3.32am on Tuesday morning, so I tuned in to the World Service. It was part two of a programme, introduced by Alvin Hall, called Misers, Bling and the Money Thing. What was interesting were the attitudes towards money of the two men profiled: the entrepreneur Peter de Savary and a late American multi-millionaire called Jack MacDonald. Both these men held their great wealth lightly: de Savary’s mentor seems to have been Andrew Carnegie, the 19th American philanthropist, whom he quoted twice – “To be wasteful is a sin” and “To die rich is to die disgraced”. Jack MacDonald simply wanted to be remembered for his philanthropy.

De Savary made a distinction between being wasteful – I think he had Russian oligarchs in mind – and being extravagant; I’m not sure I quite understand this distinction but I liked his remark that “You can only wear so many suits.” He intends to leave a legacy to people who genuinely need it. Jack MacDonald, is a more mysterious figure. He died in 2013 aged 97, having led a “boring” life according to his step-daughter. He never talked about his money, wore old, patched clothes, lived in a one-room apartment after his wife died, took the bus and used coupons for bargain buys. When he died people outside his immediate family were staggered at his wealth: $187 million – all of which he left to three charities: the Seattle Children’s Hospital (he and his wife had no children of their own); the University of Washington Law School (his alma mater); and the Salvation Army.

MacDonald did not want recognition in his lifetime, during which he made hundreds of anonymous donations to charities. He inherited a $2 million trust from his parents, invested it shrewdly and, as his step-daughter further remarked, he “stayed true to himself by acting on his convictions to do the most good with his wealth.” If I had his money I like to dream that I would act like Jack; as it is I only share his habit of wearing old clothes, travelling by bus and looking for bargains.

Pope Francis has also been thinking about money. According to a report from CNA, in an interview on June 30 he remarked that although the Gospel speaks of poverty and wealth, “It is not condemning riches, if anything [it condemns] riches when they become idolised objects: the god of money, the golden calf…”

He also took a swipe at Communism, pointing out that care for the poor is a Christian tradition rather than a Communist one: “Poverty is the centre of the Gospel. The poor are at the centre of the Gospel. Let’s look at Matthew 25…I was hungry, I was thirsty, I have been imprisoned…Communists say that all of this is Communist. Yes, 20 centuries after…”

Pope Francis did not go on to say, which is also true, that the theory of Communism is very different from its practice, as Orwell pointed out so brilliantly. I was chatting to a young Polish priest the other day and remarked that I was glad to read that the late General Jaruzelski, the Communist prime minister, then president, of Poland in the 1980s, had returned to his Catholic faith before he died.

The priest told me that despite his rigid Communist principles, Jaruzelski had his only daughter educated at a private convent school in Poland, rather than at an atheistic state one.

I also haven’t heard of any Communist philanthropists. Putting the two words together sounds oxymoronic; if all wealth is shared equally, what is there to give away? Yet in the old days of the USSR the Politburo lived lives of conspicuous extravagance compared with the proletariat they were supposed to have liberated. America, on the other hand, has had a long tradition of responsible capitalism, with men like Andrew Carnegie and Jack MacDonald believing that philanthropy was their duty. They certainly didn’t worship the golden calf. Pope Francis would have approved.

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