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The Theory and Practice of communism a series of 13 lectures drawn from the 1967 Wisconsin Alumni seminar held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The speaker Michael B Petrovich is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin the author of several books and articles. He is a specialist in Russian and Balkan history. In his last two lectures Professor Petrovich discussed Marxism as a theory of history. Today his lecture focuses on Marxism as an ethnic and a secular religion. Professor Petrovitch I'm well aware of the fact that in this discussion I am apt to offend two cards of people religious people and communists. Many far too many religious people simply condemn communism as atheistic in theory and immoral in practice and so they never come to grips with the religious like appeal which
communism has for many adherents. This is why the true power of communism often baffles some people. I have in mind when I'm saying this. A statement made by Whittaker Chambers a man whose name surely many of you will remember in connection with the history of some years ago. Whittaker Chambers was one of the well the most important witness of that trial. As an ex communist and Chambers wrote a book called The witness and the title if I understand it correctly has a double meaning it was not only the chambers was a witness at a trial his trial but Chambers was also looking at the religious meaning of the word witness the English word witness comes from the Greek word Marty and from which we get the word mark here and has a religious connotation in an article that Whittaker
Chambers did for the Saturday Evening Post at that time. He had this to say. Communists are bound together by no secret oath. The tie that binds them across the frontier is that nations across barriers of language and differences of class and education in defiance of religion morality truth law honor the weaknesses of the body and the era solutions of the mind even unto death is a simple conviction. It is now necessary to change the world. Their power whose nature baffles the rest of the world. Because in a large measure the rest of the world has lost that power is the power to hold convictions and to act upon them. Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die. To bear witness for its faith and to quote. The other hand communists themselves must resent anyone treating their
idiology as though it were a religion to communists religion is outmoded superstition. The opium of the people. Pie in the sky and can have nothing in common with what they are pleased to call scientific socialism as Marxism is known. Yet the case studies of many communists show to me at least that many of them became communists not because of the coldly rational appeal of a would be scientific idiology rather these people underwent a conversion similar to a variety of religious experience. Many perceptive writers have noted the quaint religious aspects of communism among them are Christian apologists Hulett Johnson the red dean of Canterbury as he was known John McMurry in England for its leap of Switzerland a.m. folks of Germany yos of chromite of Czechoslovakia. All of
these are theologians of different faiths who been very much so impressed. I would say over impressed by certain religious and ethical aspects of communism. In this sense that they have chosen to regard it as a somewhat wayward but different form of Christianity or something approaching it. But even Christian leaders who oppose communism and of course there are many more of those whether they be Protestant Roman Catholic or whatever have seen a certain religious or quayside religious appeal in communism. Reinhold Niebuhr for example among the Protestants or Bishop Fulton seen among the Roman Catholics or Nikolai be a giant among the Russian Orthodox in exile. Those opposed to both religion and communism have also talked about the religious appeal of communism. I'm thinking for example of POLIS the French Socialist who says A pox on both your houses are a curse on both your houses ex-communists
definitely have seen this appeal especially those who like Whittaker Chambers or Arthur Kessler have themselves been aware of their religious conversion to communism. I would very much. Call to your attention and recommend a book I hope has not escaped your attention. A book edited by Crossman c r o ss and me and the God that Failed which consists of firing member correctly of some six essays by six different people some who were actually communists some fellow travelers who explain what it is that attracted them about communism and the very title of the God that Failed indicates something of this religious of appeal. Let me document some of this by quoting a few of the people whose names I have mentioned. Yosef might cover Protestant theologian and Protestant leader in Czechoslovakia. Has this to say.
Communism reflects in a very secularized form in spite of its materialism and dictatorship. The Christian longing for the fellowship of full and responsible love and in another place he says. If communism becomes a religion itself the highest norm it will be transformed into an idolatry and tyranny and idolatry and tyranny bear in themselves the seeds of disintegration and death. Reinhold Niebuhr the famous Protestant theologian in our own country has seen fit on several occasions to look at Communism as though it were a religion. He is impressed by the appeal of the eschatological vision of a classless society. The fact that communism like the Judeo-Christian tradition is essentially optimistic about the future of the peaceable kingdom yet to come or the messianic vision.
Furthermore And here not Niebuhr is even more insistent on the point communism is a judgment on the press that it's not only a vision of the future it is the judgment on the president it judges as indeed any religion must judge the present. And from that standpoint though it is optimistic about the future it is pessimistic about the present. Communism Reinhold Niebuhr points out is a link between metaphysical faith on the one hand and a materialist dialectical outlook on the other and secured by concrete authority. The Communist Party which interprets and acts however says Niebuhr even if one looks at Communism as though it were a religion it certainly does not approach anything we would call a high religion because it gives no place to transcendent freedom and to the destiny of the individual. In his work The irony of American
history Reinhold Niebuhr says that Marxism is a kind of religious apocalypse. Let me quote him. But it is a very modern kind of religious apocalypse for it contains the dearest hope of all typical moderns Marxist or non Marxist that hope is that man may be delivered from his ambiguous position of being both creature and creator are of the historical process and become unequivocally the master of his own destiny and role. If I might turn to the well-known Roman Catholic leader Bishop Phil Sheen he writes in one place communism is not to be feared just because it is anti God but because we are godless not because it is strong but because we are weak. For if we were under God then who could conquer us. And in another place he says communism has a theory and the practice it wishes to be not only a state but a
church. Judging the consciences of man it is a doctrine of salvation and as such claims the whole man body and soul. And in this sense it is totalitarian. I turned to a leader of my own church Nikolai big jive Russian Orthodox theologian a layman who died in Paris not so many years ago. He pointed out that in his opinion as a Russian It was precisely the religious appeal of communism that attracted so many Russians. And he says in his origins of Russian Communism what was scientific theory in the West. A hypothesis or in any case a relative truth partial making no claim to be universal became among the Russian intellectuals. A dogma a sort of religious revelation. And quote He has another place in the same book. Russians are always inclined to
take things in a totalitarian sense. The skeptical criticism of Western peoples is alien to them. But yeah I have called this Russian maximal ism and he says about it. The Russian spirit craves for whole notice it yearns for the absolute and desires to subordinate everything to the absolute. And this is a religious trait in it. Still another place by gibe rights. Russian Communist atheists assert wholeness totalitarianism no less than the Orthodox slothful fields. I'm mentioned crossbones book The God that Failed the first chapter of that book as I remember it was written by Arthur Kessler in the form of reminiscences of how he came to be a communist and let me quote just two sentences from that. He says we sang the International but the words might as well have been the older
ones road to the shepherds who feed themselves but feed not their flocks straight out of the Old Testament. And in another place Kessler writes to say that one had seen the light is a poor description of the mental raptures which only the convert knows regardless of what faith he has been converted to the new light seems to pour in from all directions across the skull. The whole universe falls into a pattern like the straight pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past. I have before me. A New York Times article called The underground view of the USSR which deals with the writings of a man known under the pseudo name in the western world. Terence really a senior
who along with another colleague was a few years ago arrested and put in jail in the Soviet Union for their writings. Terence as his pseudo name goes or senior ski broke in one thousand fifty nine a piece called on socialist realism and I wish to quote from it merely to show that this religious vocabulary that is being used by a writer brought up under communism in the Soviet Union. And so it rises before us he says. The sole purpose capital P of all creation as splendid as eternal life and as compulsory as debt and we fling ourselves toward it breaking all barriers and rejecting anything which might hamper our frantic course. We free ourselves without regret from belief in an afterlife from love of fire neighbor from freedom of the individual and other prejudices. By now rather shopworn shopworn and looking all the sorry are by comparison with the
great ideal before us. Thousands of martyrs of the revolution gave up their lives for the new religion he writes and surpassed the first Christians in their sufferings their steadfastness and their holiness. To our new god we sacrificed not only our lives our blood and our bodies we also sacrificed our snow white soul after sustaining it with all the filth of the world. And then follows a paragraph that is a really strong one so that prison should vanish for ever we built new prisons so that all frontiers should fall we surrounded ourselves with the Chinese wall so that work should become a rest and a pleasure. We introduce forced labor so that not one drop of blood be shed anymore. We killed and killed and killed. Of course any honest historian of the Christian movement can also point out to this
exactly the same thing going around killing in the time the Crusades and any other time I can think of in the name of the Prince of Peace and all the rest of it. These analogies bring up the one that I like even better than the analogy made so far with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jumana role is written a book called sociology and psychology of communism in which he refers to communism today as the 20th century Islam. It's a very interesting phrase because a deeper analysis shows many many points of contact between historical Islam and its rise in past centuries and communism today. For one thing Islam represents a fusion of the political and the religious. A universal empire and a religion. The Saltire
the political head of the state under Islam was also the colly for the king left. Just as Stalin fused within himself the two positions of the head of the party and head of the state. If you stop to think about it you'll see that one big difference between modern states and ancient States lies in precisely in secularization in ancient States. The king was also held to be the high priest. In fact we have some interesting vestigial remains of this. The very title of the Pope of Rome Pontifex Maximus the supreme pontiff was originally purely a poet but a political title given to this pagan Caesars of Rome who while being the emperors were also at the same time considered the high priests of the national religion and of course that title like so many other things was given a new meaning
in the Christian world. But the Pope of Rome has remained through the centuries not only a religious leader but perforce a political leader as well. In Islam is definitely a fusion. Just as there was in ancient Egypt in ancient Mesopotamia and in many another civilization in Islam they make reference to something known as the sherry. If they keep our eye the shading out which was the religious ideology of all of Islam and of course in the Soviet Union the analogy is Marxism Leninism and under Stalin Marxism Leninism Stalin ism in which at there with in Islam at its height there was literally no distinction made between secular law and religious law. There was no such distinction. Lawyers under is in the
Slavic civilization were at the same time and members of the shared got the ole ma. The people who interpreted the religious law as well as the the political law because there was no distinction in a sense we find that same confusion of the religious and the secular in communist states. Furthermore Islam had a very active mission beyond its own borders and that just caught the holy war was an institution in Islamic civilization. Just as the worldwide mission of communism. However one interprets it or however they interpret it is pretty much the same thing the sense of a mission beyond one's borders. That isn't enough for a communist country to have communism within itself it has a mission beyond its own order and the universal order is the aim of it all.
One of the most to me instructive interesting analogies between Islam at its height and communism today is the outlook of the different peoples of the world. The Islamic scholars of the 15th and 16th centuries divided all the peoples of the world into three groups. There were two special groups. There was the dollar bill is Flom the word Islam being first cousin to the word Salam in Arabic for those of you know your Hebrew Shalom the word for peace or reconciliation as Islam means the house of peace. The House of reconciliation. These were the faithful children of Muhammad and then outside of this was the House of War.
The dollar Koolhaas or the House of conflict. These were those has not yet been converted to Islam and who had to be brought into the fold. Not in a slum. There is a religious prohibition against forcible conversion in the Koran there is a statement that the bowed neck shall not be bowed head shall not be stricken off. But we know that this rule was observed more in the breach than in the observance and Islam as we know was not only India logically aggressive but it was by force of arms that Islam spread over a good part of the earth. No one can reasonably ask at this point if this is so about Islam and no one doubts it. How could they call themselves the house of peace when it was they who were the aggressive military partition and brought fire and sword to other
people. Just exactly as one can ask in the world today how is it that the communists go on claiming that they are the ones for peace and everybody else is for war when actually one sees that in just a couple of generations the communists have taken over a third of the earth very largely through violence and through aggression. It's easy enough to say well they're just lying there in sincere but they're not. One has only to understand their own definitions of these words to see how they come to believe this quite serious seriously and sincerely. Since our emotions are loaded about communists let me start with Islam. Though these days some of your emotions may be because at about Islam too however and Islamic scholar of the 15th century for example with say Islam means peace reconciliation but
peace where what kind of reconciliation. The reconciliation of man with God with the truth. How is man reconciled with God with the truth. Well we have Mohammad to help us he has brought us the truth. The true way the Koran. Therefore all men who are for peace are men who believe in what Mohammad said and therefore the Koran and reconciliation with God and anyone who is against us therefore must be against peace. They are the House of War and the only time we shall ever have universal peace is when the others either disappear from the face of the earth or become like us true believers. I know. What communists think very much the same thing. What they say is that war in the world is inevitably the result of conflicts crowded about within the capitalist system and
that the only way we shall ever have lasting peace in the world is if we do away with those causes of war which they find imbedded in the capitalist system. Therefore by expanding communism they see themselves as being for peace whereas the capitalists just by being capitalists are for war. Well I draw the analogy here I think that there is something to be said for the analogy I might take this diagram one step further I said there were three parts of the world. The Muslim scholars said we recognize that there are certain countries that we have taken over Christian Syria for example or the Christian Balkan Peninsula. And these people are stubborn and will not become Moslem. But nevertheless they are under our political control. We can use them. They side with us.
This is the middle world. So that there is a middle world now today we can look at this in several different ways and say there's the communist world there is the anti communist world and there are the so-called non-committed or uncommitted nations or whatever that both sides are looking to. Under Islam there was definitely the idea of the elite minority ruling the majority. My own and sisters who lived under the Turks in the Balkan Peninsula and then ran away to live under the Austrians now hardly know which was worse from the standpoint of human freedoms. Nevertheless. In the Balkan Peninsula Orthodox Christians and Catholic Christians who lived under the Turks could never become first class citizens as long as they were not Islamic in the Ottoman Empire. All you had to do to be a member of the privileged caste was to change your religion. And yet the vast
majority of the people in the Balkan Peninsula and in much of the Near East refused to change their religion and so became second class citizens in the Balkan Peninsula in the Ottoman Empire. They were the great majority of the population but they were ruled by the elite which belong to the true religion of Islam. Now when we look at the communist case somebody asked me the other day what percentage of the people of the Soviet Union are communists as members of the party. And the answer is around four and a half percent in most countries a communist ruled countries at best 10 or 12 percent a member of the party. This is what she likes calls the new class the elite. Note that the word elite in its French form simply comes from the other form of the Greek Eclectus of the elect. And the minute you talk about the elect rather than the elite don't means exactly the same thing. You get into the realm of religious theology. Another analogy that can be drawn between
communism and Islam was that in both cases you're dealing with the idiology the demand complete obedience. Also both ways of life resorted to slave labor. Also both looked to a non national basis. They were international in scope. Justice communism looks to the whole world. So Islam looks to the whole world and what we call the Arab nations today the word Arab has nothing to do with nationality nothing at all. It has to have something to do with language even there and he Gyptian finds a hard time understanding the Arabic spoken by Jordanian Arabs but nevertheless this is a linguistic not a nationalist thing. The Arab nations are not one nationality. They are an international grouping. So we have this element of non nationalism in both cases. Also what wrecked Islam politically was the fact that they could not
agree on one center spot from the moment Mohammad died they began fighting over it to which the true leaders were and you have something in Islam that I should talk about and communism later Polly centrism that it broke up and not many of us in the western world are aware of these various Islamic sects such as the Sunni the Shia the Bektashi and others. But they are as aware of these things as we are aware of the fact that we have Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and Methodists and Presbyterians and all the various sects. Most of all Islam and communism may be compared by the fact that they both have been unarmed Bude with the idea of a dynamic mission and that their mission is to bring their troops one way or another to the rest of the world. Well I hope I have said enough about these analogies to show you that when one looks at Communism as though it were a religion one does not do so in vain. Even hard headed political scientists
who write in a very secular style don't feel that they must resort to religious vocabulary in describing communism in a book called the appeals of communism the author omened has sentences and words such as these. It was a religious atmosphere tense puritanical or when he's speaking about the Communist Party says there was a halo around it. Or he says the communist militant is not only related to a group he also shares in a mystical body. He merges himself in the carcass Mystikal him of the party he acquires a larger identity from it and even a sense of immortality. You know this coming from a political scientist means all the more to me. I happen to collect all sorts of flotsam and jetsam in various files of mine and I thought you might be interested in two that come out of Time magazine. The issues of years past 1 from 1963 deals with
The theory and practice of communism
Marxism as an Ethic and a Secular R
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University of Wisconsin
WHA (Radio station : Madison, Wis.)
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Producing Organization: University of Wisconsin
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Chicago: “The theory and practice of communism; Marxism as an Ethic and a Secular R,” 1968-04-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 25, 2021,
MLA: “The theory and practice of communism; Marxism as an Ethic and a Secular R.” 1968-04-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 25, 2021. <>.
APA: The theory and practice of communism; Marxism as an Ethic and a Secular R. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from