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Communism’s Collapse: The Receding Shadow of Transcendence

by A.J. Conyers

A.J. Conyers is chairman of the religion department at Baptist College at Charleston, South Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 2, 1990 pp. 466-467. copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

"The year 1989," declared former U.S. Ambassador Jack Perry to our Charleston Foreign Affairs Forum, "will go down in history as annus mirabilis -- a year of wonders." Many had thought, he continued, that communism and all the governments that flew that ideological banner would come to an end; but no one could have predicted that the end would be so swift. Many had said that communism lacked popular support; few realized what pent-up resentment would boil forth once people were free to speak about the tyranny of the past half-century and more.

Beyond all these surprises, Perry pointed out, is the stunned recognition that things will never be the same again -- that a great social, political and economic power, one which our world has reckoned with for most of this century, is unraveling. And while the shape of our world was at least familiar last summer, now we stare blinking into a void. What can it mean?

Speculation seems to be in two directions. Some say that the demise of communism means the triumph of democracy. The dynamics of a free and open society, in which the individual has full range for creative capacities, have shown their superiority over tyranny built upon a 19th-century ideology. Others claim that the decline of communism points toward the ultimate victory of the human spirit in what has been essentially a spiritual struggle. Desires to express real values, honor the truth and worship God freely could not be frustrated forever by repressive public policy.

While both of these ideas appeal to me at times, especially while looking for those proverbial cracks in the once seemingly paved-over world of communism, it’s clear that neither of these views does justice to the enormous changes taking place. Both the failure of communism and the rising dream of democracy speak of a deep crisis that has only begun to take shape. The crisis of the 1990s is one that touches upon the core of human desires, expectations and dreams. Between the failed dream of communism and the rising dream of peace, plenty and personal liberty lies a world reeling dangerously between false idols and social disintegration. "What will replace the ideological materialism of the communists? Will it be merely the practical materialism of the West?

Jean-François Revel has pointed out that a centralized dictatorship is not the only source of despotic evil:

As soon as the legitimate authority loses its grip on society it is replaced by a legion of de facto powers ranging from the Mafia to Neighborhood Committees and constituting a sort of patch-work dictatorship, a despotism disseminated throughout the body social.

This possibility points us toward a greater crisis that stems from a world plunging itself into a secularized darkness, a world that has lost its anchor in transcendent values -- a world, in short, that has forgotten how it once longed for heaven.

It is true, of Course, that the downfall of communism has also been accompanied by the re-emergence of the Christian churches in the East. That is a sign of hope -- but it is not the only sign that comes into view. There is also ethnic strife, the spirit of revenge, and developments such as the publishing of Playboy magazine in Hungary -- a move announced in a full-page ad in the New York Times with the words, "Exporting the American Dream." It is too easily assumed that it is a good sign when the East wants what the West has.

Both the East and West are included in this larger crisis. In his famous Harvard commencement address Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that were he to choose for his country between the external evil of Soviet communism and the internal, seductive evil of Western materialism, he would not willingly choose the latter. But can we assume, as many do, that in rejecting communism Eastern Europeans are choosing what we have?

The eclipse of communist ideology makes it all the more important to remember that, despite its antireligious tradition, Marxist-Leninist communism was, conceptually, the product of a world that felt the need for a transcendent vision. Communism is, more than anything else, the secularized remnant of a transcendent ideal. Until its moral capital had completely vanished, it traded on a sense of moral outrage at the injustices of the world, and it proposed a revolution to create a better one. It looked for a godless kingdom of God.

This point is not the least bit novel. Eric Voegelin, author of the magisterial Order and History and one of greatest historical philosophers of our age, saw in communism a secularized variety of gnosticism. Heidelberg philosopher Karl Lowith pointed out years ago that "the Communist Manifesto still retains the basic features of a messianic faith." Its scheme of world-historical conflict evokes images of forces of light and darkness, of "Christ and Antichrist in the last epoch of history." It is not by chance, wrote Lowith,

that the task of the proletariat corresponds to the world-historical mission of the chosen people, that the redemptive and universal function of the most degraded class is conceived on the religious pattern of Cross and Resurrection, that the ultimate transformation of the realm of freedom corresponds to the transformation of the civitas Terrena into a civitas Dei, and that the whole process of history as outlined in the Communist Manifesto corresponds to the general scheme of the Jewish-Christian interpretation of history as providential advance toward a final goal.

But we don’t need to understand philosophical similarities between Christianity, Judaism and communism to understand that what is now evaporating from the European landscape is a kind of faith -- a faith in something larger than the individual, something one might give oneself to in devotion and sacrifice. Whittaker Chambers described his turning away from the Communist Party as the loss of a religious identity. We can listen to the words and triumphant strains of the "Internationale" and hear what is best described as an apocalyptic hymn:

Arise, ye prisoner of starvation,
Arise, ye wretched of the earth,
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s In birth

Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place,
The Internationale
Shall be the human race.

Is this really science? Or is it an appeal to that longing for transcendent truth and justice that we know as religion?

Besides noting that communism represents a kind of survival of transcendent values -- though reduced and distorted -- it is also important to observe that it has succumbed in a world of increasingly nontranscendent values. Its shell of idealism survived into an age slowly losing its capacity to live for anything above the level of private life. It was something to die for, and many willingly did.

Of course it was also, in the minds of some, worth killing for. To some political minds it was an ideological cover for murder. Lenin knew that one could not make an omelet without breaking eggs. Trotsky’s ideal of "permanent revolution," in the hands of his nemesis Stalin, resulted in decades of "omeletmaking." But if one has a reason for killing -- a truly sufficient logic for murder -- that too is evidence that one still believes in a transcendent order. The fact that the transcendent order is illusory doesn’t make an ounce of difference -- and even the fact that one does not specifically believe it makes no difference, as long as it is there. Even as the formalized creed of a society, the ideology is the basis of praxis -- it serves as a principle which calls on individual sacrifice on behalf of something other and greater than oneself. This logic must at least be sufficient for the pretense that murder serves a higher purpose than personal ambition or avarice.

We must not forget that even while Stalin’s murders multiplied, Solzhenitsyn found in the Soviet prison camps "true believers" -- not party functionaries, but those who believed in the party even while they confessed their nonexistent crimes. These were, in many ways, among the world’s last great followers of a transcendent order -- martyrs to a faith even as the system created by that faith. crushed them.

It was a long way down from the kingdom of God that the Bible speaks of and the "City of God" as Augustine envisioned it to the world of the proletarian vanguard. But if we do not recognize the important relationship here, we fail to understand the full importance of what has been expelled when the demonic bondage of communism has ceased.

Does it necessarily follow that democracy will replace communism? The terms themselves are ambiguous. On the one hand, democratic freedom may mean the ideal of the individual exercising his or her own free will -- a value based upon solid conviction and nourished by a Christian view of the competence and dignity of the individual soul. However, democracy also can be seen as the vagrant wishes of the individual. The conviction that this can be a grounding principle for a society is as seductive as it is devastating to any genuine attempt to build a society. Yet what is most consistently communicated about democracy in the late 20th century is what Edmund Burke and our founders would identify as a "vulgar appeal" to those appetites that, given free reign, make society impossible.

Twentieth-century views of democracy seem often little more than a preference for "having it my way." The unprincipled free reign of individual choice has, of course, long been seen as the sure prelude to social evil. Half of the Book of Judges laments the grotesque evils of an Israel in which, because it had no king, "every man did what was right in his own eyes." The profaned version of democracy that grips the imagination of much of the world, comes very close to the moral chaos that Judges describes.

Our culture might not have survived if it had been founded on such sentiments. One is reminded of a remark made some years ago by political scientist and former ambassador George F. Kennan about the East-West conflict. "I sometimes wonder," he said, "what use there is in trying to protect the Western world against fancied threats when the signs of disintegration from within are so striking."

Another vision of democracy; however, sees it not only in terms of its result (private freedoms) but in terms of its foundation upon the virtues known in the classic tradition as "republican" or "civic" virtues. These virtues make society possible by opposing the egoistic whims of personal choice. Such virtues as patience, temperance, prudence and industry are the prior conditions of a democracy, and therefore of democratic freedom.

These virtues are based upon a strong sense of loyalty to a transcendent order -- to something outside and greater than ourselves. They suggest, by definition, something to which the individual responds with piety, loyalty and love -- attitudes that call forth the habits of self-restraint, self-control and personal sacrifice.

The exercise of patience, for instance, assumes that action directed toward the future is superior to action devoted only to the moment: it is self-restraint based upon a good that is seen as superior to the momentary self -- the self-of-the-fleeting-moment. Patience, like industry, honor, duty and prudence, is an instance of the self living for that which is greater. As our founders rightly insisted, people governed by such habits of mind and conduct have no need of a monarch.

With the veil of communist ideology (however reductionist. and perverse) ripped away, the choice left open is not between communism and democracy. Were that the case, nothing would be left but the sanguine acceptance of an assured outcome.

We are back to a more ancient struggle between a world vision based upon the satisfaction of self-centered desire and another kind of vision that may seem impossibly simple because it is conceptually a very simple matter. Morally, and in terms of the life of the spirit, it requires the greatest sacrifice possible. The answer that I have in mind actually entered an earlier world full of power struggles, social conflict, philosophical confusion and economic disparities based on appetite, influence and exploitation. It was a vision of peace only because it demanded a price. The price it demanded was eloquently symbolized in the cross, an instrument of torture and death.

The struggles faced today by East and West demand a new insight into the human condition, an insight realized in the cross of a self-giving God and consummated in the response of human love and obedience. If it is through the suffering faithful believers that this mystery is shared in the world, then perhaps deliverance will come from faithful people of the unshackled East and not from a West anesthetized by material comfort and thus still unaware of its own capacity for self-destruction.

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