Biblical Realism or Apocalypticism? A Response to Michael Novak

In the July 1984 issue of Catholicism in Crisis Michael Novak contributed an article on “Biblical Realism and Power Politics.” He argued that Christians must have a very realistic sense of the role that power plays in the world, and the focus of his article was upon the power of the Soviet Union. He sees the Soviet Union as relentlessly and ruthlessly carrying out a design to destroy capitalism. He places great stress on the centrality of Marxist-Leninist doctrine in determining the actions of Soviet leaders. “The heart of the crisis lies in doctrine . . . operationally they follow this doctrine to the letter.” The liberal West, Novak believes, “shows every sign of confusion, decadence and demoralization.” It rushes to appease and negotiate, failing to realize the dire threat posed by Communism. Liberal Christians in the United States, Novak believes, have become so taken up with rage at their own government, business and military leaders that they fail to see the dire threat posed by Communism, and they undermine the strength needed to confront it.

My initial reaction to the article was one of anger, directed not so much at the substance of these arguments but at the emotionally-charged, provocative language which I found in the article (e.g. “a culture which vigorously hates itself;” Christians by their actions “assuring Jesus will be crucified again;” the Soviet Union as “organized evil;” Christians who dialogue with Marxists or even who follow Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment,” in opposition to nuclear arms buildup and abortion, playing into the hands of Communism, etc.). Novak’s description of Soviet Communist ideology troubled me equally as much, for it seemed to have been taken from the pages of J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit or Frederick Schwarz’s anti-communist crusade literature, rather than from serious studies which scholars have made of the Soviet Union and its use of Marx-ism. The fact that the article appeared in Catholicism in Crisis only reinforced my anger (Hitchcock’s article in July on the Jesuits I found very offensive and unfair; an earlier issue of the periodical carried a purely polemical non- review of my book; and my own Christian values run counter to the whole tenor of the periodical).

But I happened to be in Washington, doing research at the Woodstock Theological Center, at the time the essay appeared. Novak invited me to write a response, urging the importance of clarifying differences in this “highly ideological period” in history. I am doing so, but with some misgivings. I fear that what I may write may be about as welcome to the readers of Catholicism in Crisis as the reception President Reagan would receive if he addressed a Sandinista rally. I also distrust my own ability to avoid using emotional barbs in return. Some counter emotion will likely surface, but I would like to offer my criticisms as rationally and constructively as possible. Many of Novak’s criticisms of the Catholic “left” need to be made and I have weighed them seriously and profited by them (for example, his editorial in the same July issue which criticized Catholics who call for the state to step in whenever they discuss a problem of social justice). My hope is that my reflections will prove similarly profitable to readers not likely to agree with my overall perspective. My criticisms focus on the tone of Novak’s language and his description of the role Marxist ideology plays in shaping Soviet policy.

With Novak’s concept of “biblical realism” I find no fault. Christians should avoid sentimental utopianism; they should be aware of original sin and the limits one can hope for in attaining justice; they should be keenly aware of how power operates in the world. But Novak’s presentation of the problem seems rather to be a form of “biblical apocalypticism.” His essay begins on an apocalyptic note: “a handful of democracies in a sea of tyrannies”; the ruling elite of the Soviet Union far more powerful and threatening than Hitler’s forces, yet Christianity is “ineffective in awakening the spirit of the West.” This apocalyptic presentation runs throughout the essay. “Organized evil” in the world is Soviet Communism. All of its actions flow from its “doctrine” which declares that capitalism must and will be destroyed in the inevitable dialectics of history. “Communist doctrine regulates and informs their every move.” Their relentless advance toward victory seems confirmed by events since World War II, with officers in every continent and the once pre-eminent United States now reduced to no more than an equal. Good in the world is the Christian West “chosen by the Creator” to be the yeast which transforms the world. But the West is weak, demoralized, and deceived “because Westerners do not take Communist doctrine seriously.” The reality of the threat I do not question; but how to understand and articulate the threat is another issue.

This apocalyptic view of the present world is built, as I see it, on two premises: (1) that the Soviet Union follows without deviation the “script” set down for it in Marxist-Leninist doctrine; (2) that the Jewish-Christian West does not realize the threat of Communism or is too divided and demoralized to respond. I will briefly consider the second point and devote more attention to the first.

Is the American public unaware of the threat of Communism? I am not sure if any Gallup polls in recent times asked this question. But anti-communism has been a consistent, dominant theme of every president of the United States since World War II. It has been used to justify U.S. foreign interventions in every decade since then — in Korea, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, El Salvador and Grenada. Numerous events over the years have been highlighted by our government and the media to stress the power, danger and wrongdoing of Soviet Communism — the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan, the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, the shooting down of a Korean jetliner, the buildup of Russian nuclear arms, the repression of Sakharov and other dissidents in the Soviet Union, the omnipresent secret police in Soviet countries. We are not confronted with a moment of decision as with Hitler in 1941 (Novak’s analogy); we have a long-standing problem to face. Novak notes that Marxist intellectuals in the United States find it necessary to dissociate themselves from Soviet policies; that itself indicates how strongly negative are American views of Soviet Communism. Novak may undoubtedly feel that we are insufficiently alert; hence the apocalyptic tone. But I suspect that underneath Novak’s assumptions lies the conviction that if all Americans viewed the Soviet Union in appropriate apocalyptic terms, they would be unified in supporting Reagan’s policies on nuclear arms and on Central America. So we differ in America’s cognizance of the dangers of Communism and how this will show itself in practice.

If the Soviet Union is a real threat, and I believe it is, then it is important to be a true biblical “realist,” not apocalyptic, and to judge as objectively as possible how and why it operates. Novak believes that it operates simply and consistently out of doctrines, presumably those of Lenin (whom Novak cites almost exclusively). “Communist doctrine regulates and informs their every move.” Is this true? Can we determine Soviet actions simply by understanding the revolutionary “doctrine” of Lenin (or Marx and Engels)? W.W. Rostow’s classic work, The Dynamics of Soviet Society, suggests otherwise. The major question Rostow posed is precisely the one at issue here: “What determines the policy of the Soviet state, at home and abroad?” Rostow certainly agrees with Novak that power is the central concern. But he has a very different view on the relative importance of doctrine. Studying the key strategic decisions made by Soviet leaders showed a consistent willingness to sacrifice Marxist-Leninist “doctrine” for maintenance of internal control and nationalist goals. Even in Lenin’s time, Rostow asserts:

When a choice had to be made between a course of action which would enhance the power of the political group as opposed to its being in conformity with Marxist doctrine, the substantive goals of revolution, the broad ideological aims and traditions of the progressive movement, or the majority will of the peoples concerned, the choice would lie on the side of short-run political realism and practice.

Again, speaking of Stalin and his successors, Rostow writes that their own maintenance of power was primary: “If other elements enter into the rationale for their action, they are now likely, on the whole, to be based increasingly on Russian nationalism rather than on Marxism.”

One scholar’s studies do not constitute a proof of his/her thesis. But others (e.g. George Kennan, Marshall Schulman) have advanced similar explanations of Soviet actions. Even recent studies by “hardliners,” who emphasize Soviet expansionism, downplay the importance of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary doctrine. Thus Edward Luttwak, in The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union (1983) , asserts that “in the modern Soviet Union, the official ideology is no longer a live body of guiding ideas” and that Marxism-Leninism is “now fossilized.” In similar fashion, W. Raymond Duncan, Soviet Policy in Developing Countries (1981), states that “pragmatic national interests appear to outweigh the spread of communism,” with revolutionary goals having a “lower echelon position” in Moscow’s foreign policy strategy. These serious analyses of the Soviet Union should at least cause Novak to hesitate about writing to apodictically that revolutionary doctrine alone guides and determines all of the Soviet Union’s actions. Let me state emphatically that I am not subscribing to one simple counter-explanation of Soviet policy (e.g. paranoia about its own national security). From all that I have read I would conclude that a complex set of attitudes and priorities govern Soviet policies — nationalism and empire building, fears for its own security, the need to maintain internal domination, and an ideology which seeks to overthrow capitalism. These all work on various occasions, making the Soviet Union sometimes cautious and conservative and at other times aggressive and expansionistic.

But do not Soviet actions prove that their revolutionary doctrine guides all their actions? They have crushed every effort of Eastern European countries to defect from their orbit. They have established revolutionary “surrogates” in Cuba and Vietnam; they have intervened in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen; they train thousands of students and military from the Third World and send billions in arms. These do indeed show Soviet power and the determination to expand its control and domination wherever feasible; the United States must be strong in challenging their actions. But the Soviets have also shown great caution at times (as Novak briefly acknowledges) and they have failed and fallen from grace in Indonesia, the Sudan, Egypt, Somalia, Ghana, and in maintaining China as an ally. This belies the “relentless advance” of which Novak speaks. But even clear examples of Soviet expansion do not prove that “doctrine” alone guides their actions any more than U.S. interventions in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, etc., and our massive arms sales, “prove” the radical view that the United States seeks a capitalist-imperialist domination of the world. In short, I agree with Novak on the importance of understanding the Soviet Union; we disagree on whether that understanding is simple or complex.

On the danger and threat of Communism we also agree. On how to deal with that danger and the ultimate resolution of the danger I suspect we disagree. In 1964 George Kennan spelled out the long-range options as “peaceful coexistence” or “victory.” Both strategies carry with them great risks, as Kennan acknowledged. I suspect that Novak stands for “victory,” judging by his view of Soviet leadership as organized evil, his comment about the liberation of captive nations, his view of peaceful co-existence as a Communist-fostered illusion, and (from conversations) his convictions about the use of military power in Central America. Those who opt for “victory” (and Novak may not wish to call this position his own) must face several potentially grave consequences. First, commitment to victory, as I see it, is a clear admission that the Soviets are correct in telling their people that the United States seeks the destruction of their system and that they are justified, therefore, in building up their military power. Second, a concern for victory has led us to intervene, militarily or through covert actions, to assure the overthrow of governments suspected of Communist orientations. We may be successful in the short run, though at the cost of tremendous sufferings to those countries involved (e.g. the tens of thousands who have been killed by government forces in Guatemala since 1954). But we may also create “endless enemies” (Jonathon Kwitny) and “inevitable revolutions” (Walter LaFeber) among developing nations seeking political and economic dependence. Third, “victory” suggests to me that only nuclear war will settle the issue with the Soviet Union, even more so if the Soviet Union is as intractable in its goals as Novak suggests.

My own view lies closer to “peaceful coexistence,” though this phrase has now taken on connotations of weakness and isolationism which I would reject. I do not believe in unilateral disarmament, in trusting the “good intentions” of the Soviet Union, or in romanticizing revolutions and letting the Soviets operate where they will in developing countries. And I am keenly aware of the tremendous sufferings that have followed when countries have fallen to Communism (e.g. Vietnam, Kampuchea). Maintaining strength and a clear sense of the dangers of Communism are essential to my option as well.

But it was not disagreement on “how to deal with Communism” that prompted this response. The debate has gone on for years and should be continued. My criticisms of Novak’s essay center rather on his reading of Soviet motives and the emotionally charged tone of his arguments. Beneath his language are important issues. But by asserting that all Soviet actions flow simply from Leninist doctrines, and by implying that those who do not acknowledge the threat (as Novak perceives it) are assuring that Jesus will be crucified again, he does not foster the kind of rational discussion we need.


  • Arthur F. McGovern

    At the time this article was published, Arthur F. McGovern, S.J., was teaching in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Detroit Mercy.

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